Bret Stephens is unfit to serve on the University of California’s Free Speech Center’s advisory board. Last year, when I visited the Center’s inaugural event in Washington D.C., I watched Stephens tell a Black UC student that her understanding of the world is wrong: She shouldn’t take politics too seriously, he said, because political discussions should be fun. Words like this from him are expected: In the past, Stephens has argued that Black Lives Matter sends the wrong message, saying instead that “all lives matter.”
It’s hard to overstate the absurdity of Stephens, who is supposed to advise a center that educates all UC students on free speech (including Black students), suggesting Black students should engage in speculative discussion about police brutality and somehow disengage from the everyday reality of being Black. Stephens, to be clear, is also a climate change denier, when the UC system is one of the foremost centers for climate research in the country; and he is consistently racist (once writing that anti-Semitism the “Disease Of The Arab Mind”), at a time when the UC system already struggles to retain a diverse student base.
But while Stephens, a New York Times columnist, deserves to be removed from the UC Free Speech Center for a number of reasons, there is one in particular that makes the need for his resignation or removal obvious: He doesn’t care about free speech.
In the past week, several of Stephens’ colleagues have come out with stories, detailing his attempt to get them fired for disagreeing with his work or complaining about his stories. In other words, Stephens is the perpetual “Karen” of the New York Times newsroom; he has made a career out of calling people’s managers and pushing for them to be punished, using his power as a prominent columnist to terrorize his colleagues and at least one prominent academic.
“He has even emailed the masthead complaining about fellow editors or writers,” Wajahat Ali, an occasional contributor to The Times, wrote on Friday. “As a result many walk on eggshells when it comes to him. There’s a simmering resentment and feelings of a very real double standard. People fear for their jobs so [they] remain quiet.” If Stephens was devoted to free speech, he would either be quiet or engage with the criticism, rather than complain about his co-workers behind closed doors in an attempt to strong-arm them into being quiet.
In August of last year, Professor David Karpf, an associate professor at George Washington University, called Stephens a bedbug on Twitter. The tweet initially received around 9 likes, according to Karpf. But hours later, Karpf (and his provost) received an email from Stephens asking for an apology, with his provost CC’ed on the email. Had Karpf not had tenure, he said he would have been worried about his job.
Ironically, Stephens’ columns have more than once been about the “crisis” of free speech on college campuses, in which he argues professors are afraid of speaking out due to fear of political correctness. He says that bad actors attempt to stifle academics’ ability to talk about real issues; for example, Stephens believes Charles Murray, a successful author and political scientist who has argued Black people genetically have lower IQs, has been treated unfairly. But stifling academics is exactly what Stephens has done with his career. Last year, he used his perch of power to try to get a professor reprimanded or fired.
“This was never about online civility. It was about power. Bret Stephens believed that, by virtue of his comfortable position at the New York Times, he ought to be immune from insult or criticism,” Karpf, a professor of media, wrote for Esquire. “Stephens tried to use his social position at the New York Times to punish me for joking about him.”
Months after the debacle, Stephens, who has said in the past that it is important to engage in open debate, was set to debate Karpf on the role of civil discourse online at George Washington University. But at the last minute, Stephens said he wanted the debate to be closed to the public. When Karpf declined, Stephens withdrew.
At best, Stephens has shown that he has no regard for the merits of discussion, and at worst, he consistently proves that he uses his platform entirely in bad faith. Removing Stephens from an advisory position has nothing to do with his free speech, which simply means speech free from government coercion. This is not about what Stephens can and can’t say; he has his columns for that. It’s about recognizing that it is inappropriate for Stephens to wield power in the way that he does, especially when he influences a center designed to inform students about free speech.
Stephens is free to make whatever ridiculous statements he wants. But that does not mean he should hold a board position advising the University of California on how to educate students on matters of free speech. Being callous, irresponsible, and provocative with your words does not make you an expert on the First Amendment—it makes you an asshole.
Stephens should resign or be removed.
Gabe Schneider is an alumni of UC San Diego (‘18), a founder of The Triton, and the Washington Correspondent at MinnPost.