The first thing to understand about Carolyn Rouse is she never actually said the words “fuck free speech.” The title of the lecture the Princeton University professor delivered on Sept. 13, “F&*# Free Speech,” was meant to be fun, she said, a kind of academic joke meant to test administrators’ censorship trigger fingers, and to intrigue conservative students on campus.
She didn’t expect the 45-minute lecture would go beyond annoying her local college Republicans, instead rousing the never-sleeping giant of the sprawling online right. But that’s what happened five days later, when Campus Reform, a website dedicated to uncovering “bias and abuse” toward conservatives on college campuses, published a straightforward account of the Princeton event.
Rouse’s lecture wasn’t exactly the tirade against free speech one might expect from the title, as the report indicated. Rather it was academic, complex, and wonky — exactly what one might expect from the chair of Princeton’s anthropology department. But when Campus Reform’s story was picked up by the conservative behemoth National Review, the floodgates opened.
Since 2016, a divisive, costly, and occasionally violent pattern has emerged at schools across the country: Controversial speakers are invited to speak on campus, and young progressives respond by shouting them down or throwing them out. Outrage over “snowflake” students squashing the First Amendment ensues.
Rouse’s lecture provided an irresistible new headline for the partisan drama: “Ivy League professor says ‘Fuck Free Speech.’” Milo Yiannopoulos’s blog said Rouse demonstrated “a total lack of understanding of what the Constitution is or means.” Right-wing websites called her “an anti-American radical determined to destroy the very foundations that helped to make this country great,” and a “malevolent nitwit [whose] job is to undermine, corrode, and ruin.” Overnight, the 52-year-old anthropologist became the latest example of how American universities are just the left’s overpriced brainwashing centers.
On Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions told law students at Georgetown University their right to free expression was under attack. “The American university was once the center of academic freedom,” Sessions said. “But it is transforming into an echo chamber of political correctness and homogenous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.”
But this idea — that colleges have historically been free speech bastions — is exactly what Rouse rejected nearly two weeks earlier at her Princeton lecture. It was her key point: “The academy has never promoted free speech as its central value,” she said.
In light of the national debate on free speech, Rouse’s argument was provocative; you don’t title your lecture “F%*# Free Speech” without some tendency toward provocation. Her most vocal detractors (largely white, largely male) like to be provocative too. But where they see boundary-pushing as their right to free speech, Rouse does not. She’s dedicated her career to studying race, and she’s seen firsthand how free speech without basis in fact, particularly in academia, has been weaponized to oppress people of color.
Free speech, as it’s being debated today on campuses and social media, and at the highest level of government, is no longer just about the First Amendment. It’s about who has access to the First Amendment. It’s about how when black people exercise their free speech rights — kneeling during the national anthem like Colin Kaepernick, calling the president a white supremacist like Jemele Hill — the White House publicly calls for them to be fired. Free speech has become a partisan issue, a debate sowing division across football stadiums and campus lawns alike.
After Sept. 13, Rouse found herself a new player in that debate, a tenured anthropologist pushing an academic argument in favor of the so-called snowflakes.
The central idea of Rouse’s Sept. 13 lecture was that “free speech absolutism does not exist,” however much it’s embraced as a core American belief.
More than a week after the lecture, which was held as part of Princeton’s Constitution Day, Rouse explained her argument further: “We speak differently to different groups in different contexts,” she said. “There's no society where anyone could say whatever they want at any point and expect to have no repercussions from that.”
There are classic examples of this, which Rouse offered: If a doctor gives faulty treatment advice to someone at a party, they could be sued. But Rouse also offered specific examples from her field that prove free speech acts aren’t without consequences. Larycia Hawkins, a professor at Wheaton College, was suspended and eventually stepped down in February 2016 after wearing a hijab at the Christian school to show solidarity with Muslims.
But Rouse’s view on free speech can’t just be boiled down to “There’s a time and a place.” In classrooms, she said, the free exchange of ideas must be rooted in legitimate evidence. Debate can’t happen unless there’s some agreement on foundational premises, such as the existence of evolution. Above all, free speech in academia cannot be disingenuous, she said.
“Slavery, Jim Crow, Nazism, genocide, eugenics, McCarthyism, Japanese internment. They were all terrible social policies,” Rouse added. “We shouldn't have to relitigate them in the classroom. We're undermining the very foundation or the premise of the academy. Maybe we shouldn't exist anymore, if everything can be taken care of just by who can be louder and who can state things in the most clever way to get the most attention.”
Days after her lecture, the National Review wrote that Rouse using her First Amendment rights to, as they saw it, blast the First Amendment was an irony “as rich (and sickening) as a mayonnaise-covered chocolate truffle.” Libertarian magazine Reason emphasized that censoring speech doesn’t make “bad” ideas go away. And the blog Restore American Glory wrote that Rouse was “one of those luddites who pines for the vanishing Era of the Gatekeepers, where only those opinions that had been thoroughly vetted by the academic elite could find their way to the unwashed learning masses.”
On that point, Restore American Glory isn’t necessarily wrong: Rouse does believe in thorough vetting — which is done by gatekeepers. But who gets to decide who those gatekeepers are? How do they decide what evidence is legitimate, and which facts are the facts we all agree upon?
Rouse knows that alumni see the emerging caricature of universities as coddling cradles of safe spaces. She knows they threaten university presidents with withdrawing donations over these free speech dustups. But she simply doesn’t believe in bending to the will of conservative provocateurs, “giving them the podium to just make pronouncements about the world without any checks,” she said. As Rouse gave her lecture in mid-September, Yiannopoulos was preparing in vain for four days of what University of California President Janet Napolitano called “controversial and noxious” programming in Berkeley.
“I’m trying to walk this line between quelling the fears, but not opening the doors for Milo to come and give us some wisdom at Princeton,” Rouse said. “Why would we do that?” (One solution she offered was not to bar contentious speakers completely, but to give them someone to debate rather than allow them to monologue.)
Rouse also knows that her peers have faced frightening death threats after enraging people like Yiannopoulos, his followers, and his allies. Princeton’s own Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor canceled speeches after receiving threats concerning an address she gave to Hampshire College — notably when she called Trump a “racist, sexist megalomaniac.”
Is Rouse ready for that sort of reaction to her work? She was certainly ready for negative responses to “F%*# Free Speech” — she joked in her lecture “all hate mail can be sent to me at email@example.com.”
All her life, Rouse said, she’s seen the “slow embrace” of black Americans. She grew up in Del Mar, California, north of San Diego, where her parents — a physicist and a psychologist — had been barred from buying a house in tony Rancho Sante Fe because of their race, she said. Her family still remembers the name of the only realtor who’d work with them to buy property.
Rouse has spent her career studying race and inequality in religion, in medicine and health care, and in education and development. She used to believe racial equality progressed over time in a straightforward line. Through her work, she’s disabused herself and her students of that notion. The racism that “doubled up” when President Obama took office made Rouse not “want a new black president for a while.”
That may seem bleak, but Rouse said she loves her job. She’s a jovial person, energized by complicated ideas and determined to make them clear to whomever she’s speaking. She’s a natural teacher, in a family full of them: Her brother was a professor of physics. Her sister, today, is the dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
The Woodrow Wilson school is the same one that Princeton was forced to decide whether to rename in early 2016; Wilson was a staunch segregationist, and in November 2015, a coalition led by black students held a sit-in, urging the school to remove Wilson’s name. But Rouse supported the board of trustee’s eventual decision to keep it.
Her defense was similar to the free speech argument she made in mid-September, in her controversial lecture. If a school in the midwest with no historical connection to Wilson had a hall named after him, it would make sense for them to rename that hall, Rouse said. But it did not make sense for Princeton, where Wilson had once served as university president and left behind a legacy. The decision was comprehensible only in context, she said. Just like speech.
Rouse hasn’t made video of her Sept. 13 lecture available to the public; anyone who wants to watch it must have a password, which is changed every few days. While she’s received a trickle of hate mail over the past week, she said, she’s not on social media, and she hasn’t read any of the websites that have featured the fierce criticism of her lecture. She learned about Yiannopoulos’s blog post when a TV news producer called for her response last Thursday night, she said. She learned about National Review’s criticism of her the next day, when I told her about it.
Rouse was surprised and exasperated by the news, but she found some self-deprecating humor in it. “I was actually really thinking about an audience here, and I didn't think about a national audience, and that was stupid,” she said. “That was a mistake.”
She dropped her head into her hands with a smile and a sigh. “I'm living in my own little bubble.”
This bubble is one of Rouse’s own making. Starting two days after the election, the professor pledged to stop watching cable news, reading any online media, and listening to call-in talk radio for four years. She planned to read only the New York Times print edition on the weekends, as well as any “exceptional investigative journalism” published in the interim, and listen only to the WNYC radio show On The Media. She turned this into a project called “Trumplandia,” in which the public would submit their own observed reports of Trump’s impact on the world. This would become her news source.
Though the project hasn’t turned out quite like she hoped — she consumes some news online but she’s still sworn off cable news and radio — Rouse soon plans on making some of the 150 submissions public on a website, along with a podcast featuring field interviews she’s conducted with Trump supporters in rural California.
But “Trumplandia” has drawn some criticism too. In the project’s description, Rouse called Trump “authoritarian and racist.” In response, strangers tweeted to Princeton’s anthropology department account that Rouse was “a black racist who suffers from White Envy.”
She’d inspired this kind of response before. In March, Rouse went on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight to talk about Charles Murray. Murray had just been chased out of Middlebury College by a raucous student-led protest — a defining moment in the campus free speech culture war. But three months earlier, Rouse had led a 75-person silent walkout during Murray’s appearance at Princeton. She’d been reading the section of Hitler’s Mein Kampf on nation and race, she said, and she felt like she could quote from that and parts of Murray's 1994 book The Bell Curve and her students wouldn’t know the difference. So she decided to protest, not to silence Murray, but to show him “we don’t have time for this anymore.”
The Fox News segment isn’t easy to watch. Rouse admits she hasn’t read all of The Bell Curve, which Carlson then identifies as her weak spot, repeatedly returning to the fact she has little knowledge of what she actually protested. She tells Carlson she’d read his books, including Losing Ground in college, which she found “fascinating but completely false.” The conversation staggers on, a career academic versus a career television debater.
When Rouse and I met, she had to spend some time digging through the shelf before she could find Losing Ground. “Where is he?” she said. “I think I hide him sometimes because I don’t want to see him.”
When she found the book, she opened it to a random page. Scrawled in blue highlighter in the margin was “Amazing!” It was Rouse’s copy from college. She read me a passage — about why black children do not and cannot succeed in magnet schools — emphasizing certain lines. “He’s so snarky!”
“I didn't know anything when I read this,” she said, closing the book and becoming serious again. She was assigned it with no context or challenges to the text, and she didn’t know how to respond to Murray. Without evidence to the contrary, she thought maybe he could be right. And so she set out to prove Murray wrong. That drive inspired her work for years.
“I got my PhD in order to challenge this,” she said, holding up the book, articulating what she didn’t on Tucker Carlson’s show — that yes, she knew Murray’s work so intimately that it put her on the trajectory of becoming the anthropology department chair of Princeton University. “This was the catalyst. It depressed the hell out of me reading this book.”
It was after her Tucker Carlson appearance that Rouse received the most hate mail — more than after “F%*# Free Speech,” more than in response to Trumplandia. She played me one voicemail, left by a man who identifies himself as Scott, and who punctures every other word he speaks with clipped breath into the phone’s receiver, muffling his vaguely menacing tone. It’s four minutes and 57 seconds, but the crux of Scott’s call is this:
“Can you name me one academic institution in Africa, Ms. Rouse, that has made stunning or at least significant or even marginally significant contributions to the furtherance of mankind and humanity in the fields of engineering, medicine, science? Just one academic institution on the entire content of Africa, Ms. Rouse. Look in the mirror, woman. Name me one.”
Yet six months later, in September, when it came to saying (or not saying) “fuck free speech” in a public forum, Rouse wasn’t thinking about Scott or any of the ugly emails. She wasn’t thinking of the strangers who might criticize and mock her. Until I told her, she didn’t even know that her March 2017 appearance on Tucker Carlson was still quite high in her Google results, under the headline “Tucker Takes on Race-Baiting Princeton Professor.”
Rather, Rouse was thinking about how she, like so many black academics, has spent years responding to unfounded racist scholarship. She was thinking about her mission to protect academia from becoming a place that validates bigotry, pseudoscience, and fake news.
As the Trump-era culture war over free speech rages on, colleges are being forced to pick a side: whether to allow absolute free speech, or not. When Jeff Sessions spoke at Georgetown on Tuesday, calling for a “national commitment to free speech on campus,” he told students that their “generation will decide if this experiment in freedom will continue. Nothing less than the future of our Republic depends on it.”
Rouse may agree on that point.
“It feels like we're treating all of this as a game,” she said. “As an anthropologist, I'm fascinated. As a citizen, I'm scared.” ●
Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve was published in 1994. A previous version of this story misstated the year.
Jessica Testa is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Jessica Testa at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.