A protest at New York University. Photo by Felipe De La Hoz

As a journalist and journalism lecturer, I spend a good amount of time thinking about language. Some of my colleagues these days are largely concerned — correctly, in my view — with the devaluing of language as a whole. Not in the silly and often generational way of discomfort with slang or changing language norms but its offloading from our hands altogether in the form of increasingly popular large language models like ChatGPT, which produce a language-like mush that many companies and some of the public seem to think is close enough. Its loss is about more than language itself, it’s about the loss of our ability to understand each other, to transmit not just basic information but ideas and empathy and truth.

That’s worth its own newsletter sometime, but my issue today is not about the cutting-edge threats to language, but something a bit more pedestrian and far more long-standing, reaching as far back as our earliest use of words to communicate with each other: how language inadvertently or intentionally shapes narrative, how it creates reality.

Much ink has been spilled in the last few days on the pro-Palestinian encampment situation at Columbia and at the various universities that followed. I’m going to assume here that you know the basic contours: the hearings before a congressional committee, the impromptu encampment on the lawn at Columbia’s private campus in Morningside Heights, the arrests, the outside agitators, the subsequent encampments at NYU and the New School, followed by more arrests. I’ve been doing some light coverage but I’ll leave it to reporters enmeshed in the situation to give you the on-the-ground details.

What I want to talk about are a couple of phrases found in statements by Columbia University President Minouche Shafik and NYU President Linda G. Mills either preceding or following the mass arrests of demonstrators on their respective campuses. I’ll address the latter first: a couple of hours after the NYPD arrested some 120 people, including students and faculty, at and outside of Gould Plaza near Washington Square Park, Mills sent the NYU community an email about the situation. She called “academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas… bedrock principles,” while claiming that the clearing of the encampment was necessary because protesters had “breached the barriers” that the university’s public safety team had set up at the entrance to the plaza (I checked, it’s not technically listed as a privately owned public space, but I think there’s a case to be made that it is functionally a public area).

I was a little befuddled when I read that specific phrase, because I happened to be there as this supposed breaching was taking place. I had taken my own NYU journalism class out to see the encampment and try to talk to some of its integrants, and argued a little with the bored-looking public safety officers about letting us past the little barricades — those slotted steel ones the NYPD uses for parades and such — they’d set up. As we stood out there, more students kept arriving and joining the chants, while a very small counter-protest of students waving Israeli flags stood on the other side of the street. A few reporters arrived, as did police, who mainly seemed to be trying to keep people from standing on the street.

The scene at NYU. Photo by Felipe De La Hoz

After a little while, one of the speakers implored students and faculty to raise their NYU IDs to prove they had a right to be there, and then cross the barricades. Some students tilted a couple barricades a few degrees to create openings, and then they filed in. Some pulled themselves up the hip-high stone fence that surrounds the plaza steps. Public safety stood by and watched, stone-faced; one of them recorded the scene. People were feeling riled up, to be sure, but as far as these things go, this was one of the more low-key instances of civil disobedience I can remember.

I left at around 1 p.m., hours before the clearing. Nothing I heard and saw on social media or news coverage in that intervening time indicates to me that things turned violent, at least until the cops moved in. Yet that “breached the barriers” bit stuck in my craw a little because it seemed engineered to be technically correct — there were barriers, and those barriers were breached — but conceptually misleading, suggesting some kind of storming of the ramparts instead of the stepping around little barriers that I witnessed.

Even that insinuation pales in comparison to the one made by Columbia’s Shafik, who wrote in her request to the NYPD that “the encampment and related disruptions pose a clear and present danger to the substantial functioning of the University.” As Hell Gate subsequently pointed out, the NYPD itself seemed to disagree with that characterization, with Chief of Patrol John Chell — hardly a bleeding heart — saying at a press conference that “the students that were arrested were peaceful, offered no resistance whatsoever, and were saying what they wanted to say in a peaceful manner.”

I spoke on background with a Columbia spokesperson, whom I pressed for details about what, exactly, was so threatening about this encampment, and the best I got was that some students felt that the chanting was disruptive and the environment was intimidating — certainly a concern for university administrators, but hardly the sort of thing that most people would agree necessitates a hundred arrests and suspensions, within one day of setting up.

It’s important to note that “clear and present danger” is not just a random phrase (and no, it’s not just a Tom Clancy novel and 1994 thriller starring Harrison Ford). It comes from the seminal 1919 Supreme Court decision in Schenck v. United States, a foundational First Amendment case that involved a couple of socialists distributing anti-draft leaflets during World War I. The socialists were convicted of violating a law that prohibited attempts to obstruct recruitment and cause military insubordination, and appealed on the grounds that this violated their First Amendment right to, in effect, criticize government policy and urge disobedience.

In a unanimous decision that is still considered a mistake by some scholars, the court ruled that this did not violate their speech rights, because “words which, ordinarily and in many places, would be within the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment may become subject to prohibition when of such a nature and used in such circumstances a to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils which Congress has a right to prevent.” (This is also the decision that popularized the famous “shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater” adage.)

Very basically, speech that would otherwise be protected loses its protection if it will imminently lead to laws being broken. This phrase is so specific that I find it hard to believe that it made its way into this letter by coincidence, especially with Shafik knowing how heavily the university’s response would be scrutinized. So here we have the university president explicitly invoking the landmark case about when state power can be used to restrict speech in a letter calling for state power to be deployed to remove demonstrators, which makes it really hard for me to accept that this isn’t fundamentally about speech, not university operations.

Before I go any further, I want to explicitly say that I am well aware of legitimately antisemitic incidents and speech that have occurred in the vicinity of these encampments, and this is unacceptable. The concern that some Jewish students have felt about their physical safety is a real one, and the universities have a responsibility to ameliorate it as much as possible. What I’ll note is that I haven’t seen a single account, including by the right-wing outlets that have emphasized this aspect of the protests, that puts any of these incidents inside the encampments themselves. They seem to be driven by outside groups and agitators that are there to take advantage of the milieu.

I am not a university administrator, and I can’t pretend to know what exactly I’d do in this position, beset by heavy pressures from lawmakers, donors, faculty, students, parents, religious leaders, speech advocates, journalists, and on and on. It seems, frankly, like a nightmare. But they signed up for this, and they have to own up to their decisions. It seems to me that there’s a clear effort here to misrepresent what’s actually happening in these protests, and to directly portray this speech as somehow inherently dangerous or disruptive. That should concern us all.

Click here to read more of Felipe’s work.

Felipe De La Hoz is an immigration-focused journalist who has written investigative and analytic articles, explainers, essays, and columns for the New Republic, The Washington Post, New York Mag, Slate,...

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