Norwich University

Photo: Zuejay via Wikimedia Commons

This past October, Norwich University’s President, Richard Schneider, joined a nationwide trend within colleges and universities when he banned the use of a popular, public message-board app, Yik Yak, on the Vermont campus. Despite acknowledging the futility of this gesture as his students could still access the app on their cellular connections (which is likely how most of them were accessing the app in the first place) – Schneider nonetheless took it upon himself to take this precaution, sanctimoniously and patronizingly noting that “[Yik Yak] is hurting my students right now. They are feeling awkward, they are feeling hurt, they are feeling threatened.”

While institutions of higher education should certainly be concerned with the physical safety of faculty and students, protecting them from “feeling awkward” simply has no place in the job description of a college president. More troubling still, it has been reported that Norwich University began investigations into the Yik Yak posts. Banning a speech platform at an institution of higher education is bad enough, but threatening disciplinary investigation into verboten language has even broader censorship ramifications.

As many others have pointed out, banning a platform for speech does not actually address the root problem of offensive speech. Pushing vile, racist, homophobic etc. speech further underground does not eliminate it; rather, it simply puts such speech in a place where it can be ignored. This might actually be Schneider’s ultimate goal. After all, Norwich University accepted those offending students into their community, and they will, presumably, confer a stamp of legitimacy upon them once they graduate. The most discomforting aspect of Yik Yak abuse might be that it exposes members of a given community as holding such ugly views – discomforting, perhaps, but a perfectly legitimate function of free speech.

While Schneider and Norwich University have taken a wholly counter-productive approach, it should be noted that an alternative does exist. Just look at what Colgate University professors did to invert the negative space that Yik Yak had created on their campus. Indeed, while anonymous online platforms are often associated with hate and bile, it can also, to the contrary, be a safer space for expression.

For their decision to censor and police speech on campus, President Schneider and Norwich University in Vermont have won themselves a Muzzle Award in 2015.