How not to handle incivility in the Digital Age

A sad fact about some of today’s college students—particularly those of the leftist variety—is that they place greater value on their emotions and ideology than they do on tolerance, sensibility, and free speech.

Increasingly, such students are urging university administrators to disinvite commencement speakers who hold opposing political views. Others want professors to provide “trigger warnings” before lectures and book assignments to “protect” students who may be offended or psychologically affected by course material dealing with racial issues, sex, violence, or pornography. The ridiculousness of that standard was on display last year when a Rutgers student wrote an op-ed advocating for such warnings for The Great Gatsby because it “possesses a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence.”

Sometimes, university officials stand up for free speech and open discourse and refuse to comply with the students’ demands. Unfortunately, in other cases, they’ve yielded to the mob and allowed offended, “progressive” student constituencies to dictate what counts as acceptable speech on campus.

Recently, that kind of illiberalism has reared its head in controversies related to Yik Yak, a popular social media app that allows users to anonymously publish short posts.

Yik Yak is used on more than 1,000 campuses in the U.S. and around the world. It’s similar to Twitter except that it’s tailored to college students and others who prefer to rant online incognito. Anyone with the app can read, up-vote (i.e., “like”), and comment on the posts of other users who are within a 1.5-mile radius.

Some students take their publishing opportunity to talk trash about other schools’ basketball teams, brag about how much they drank at last night’s keg party, complain about their boss, or make passive-aggressive jabs at old boyfriends and girlfriends. But this is, after all, the Internet, where jerks never pass up opportunities to be, well, jerks. Occasionally intermingled with innocuous posts and hip college humor are racist, homophobic, and otherwise derogatory remarks.

For example, last fall, during the “Black Lives Matter” student protests at Chapel Hill’s campus (regarding the nationally publicized police shootings of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown and 43-year-old Eric Garner), one person wrote, “The way blacks are acting right now kind of justify [sic] slavery.” Another wrote, “I really hate blacks. I’m going home where there aren’t any.” In a recent interview with UNC-CH’s student paper, the Daily Tar Heel, a concerned student who has monitored similar “yaks” that she describes as “very hurtful” said, “Free speech isn’t just, ‘You can say whatever you want without any consequences,’ and Yik Yak gives that platform.”

Winston Crisp, UNC-Chapel Hill’s vice chancellor of student affairs, has issued a statement condemning the app, which some have construed as a threat of a campus-wide ban: “Yik Yak adds little to no value to our community and creates more problems for our students than it will ever be worth. We want Carolina to be a place where people feel comfortable talking about race and other issues, and we are working hard to create opportunities for them to do that in a constructive and respectful way.”

A media spokesperson at Chapel Hill told the Pope Center that while the university has no immediate plans to ban the app, it is currently in conversation with Yik Yak officials and students about how to handle issues arising from its use.

Across the country, several universities—usually at the behest of offended student groups—have blocked the app on their wi-fi networks. Augustana College in Illinois, Utica College in New York, and Norwich University in Vermont have banned its use. At other schools, such as Clemson and Emory University, student leaders have denounced Yik Yak as a platform for “hate speech” and called on university leaders to censure it.

In North Carolina, however, Duke University and NC State have come out against bans, citing censorship concerns. “On this campus and I think on most, what we tell students is freedom of expression, even offensive free expression, is what we cherish,” said Larry Moneta, Duke’s vice president of student affairs, in a recent interview with Raleigh news stations WRAL.

Would a ban even be effective?

Eric Stoller, a blogger for Inside Higher Ed, pointed out the obvious in a January 22 post: universities can’t actually ban the app by blocking it from their wi-fi networks. Any student with a smartphone, i.e, the typical student, can access Yik Yak via his or her wireless network. So, at best, banning the app is an empty gesture aimed at mollifying some hyper-sensitive campus group, not an effective means of curbing online incivility.

And, as Stoller noted, a ban doesn’t actually address the underlying issue, which is the people who choose to make threats or disparage others, not the technology: “How does higher education change the world? Not by banning or blocking, but by teaching and educating. Let’s keep Yik Yak around and see how our communities unite…”

Some communities are uniting. At Colgate University in New York, for example, professors started a “Yak Bak” campaign to fill up the site’s feed with positive messages and encouragement for students. Also, Yik Yak officials are working to enhance the app’s algorithms so that they can more easily identify and weed-out bigoted statements and bomb threats. Someone made a bomb threat in Chapel Hill’s “yak space” last fall and, thanks to assistance from Yik Yak, local police were able to identify the culprit.

Let’s travel back in time to 1939. That November, the editors of the Carolina Buccaneer, a student-run humor and “dirty jokes” magazine that had for years riled UNC-Chapel Hill students and faculty, released a so-called “sex issue.” Its front cover featured a cartoon image of a busty woman—presumably a prostitute, although that’s open to interpretation—wearing lingerie while smoking a cigarette and drinking liquor (readers were to assume that she had just had sex). The magazine’s content—cartoons and short stories—is described today by a university library exhibit as “slightly risqué material.”

Socially conservative students, however, were more than slightly offended: they burned 4,000 copies of the Buccaneer. They made their point in the basest possible way—by spurning free expression and destroying property.

That outrage was apparently shared by school officials. Fred Weaver, then assistant dean of students, wrote a letter to the magazine’s editor, saying, “We cannot defend student freedom as a means of continuing the publication of indecent literature. There is no basis, student freedom, student rights, or otherwise, on which we can justify or defend it.”

Seventy-five years later, Winston Crisp would make a similar statement: “Yik Yak adds little to no value to our community and creates more problems for our students than it will ever be worth.”

Both Weaver and Crisp missed the mark. Whether language—in a magazine or on a social media app or anywhere else—is considered by some administrators and students to be “indecent” or of “little to no value” is irrelevant. In higher education (and especially on a public university campus), free speech should take precedence over such subjective value judgments, and for good reason.

When Chapel Hill students burned the Buccaneer in 1939, they didn’t stop the magazine’s editors from finding other platforms to publish their sexual humor (in fact, they probably motivated them to do just that). Nor did they stir up moral epiphanies in the hearts of the students who had laughed at the magazine’s dirty jokes over the years. Similarly, if UNC-Chapel Hill were to “ban” Yik Yak today, students would either find a workaround or create another app/website. And, more important, the incivility that exists in the minds of the offending students would be unaltered.

The appropriate—and constitutional—response for a public university is to instead use the marketplace of ideas to counter offensive words and positively influence the hearts and minds of those who would cause harm to campus communities. Thanks to the Internet, that marketplace is as free and open as ever. UNC-Chapel Hill and other schools that are concerned about offensive language—on Yik Yak or elsewhere—should use it to their advantage.