Cartoon: Free Speech on Campus

In the first draft of this cartoon, the first panel went out of its way to make fun of Emma Camp’s New York Times article about students being afraid to say controversial things. Camp described her own freedom of speech being threatened when Camp said something unpopular in class: “I saw people shift in their seats. Someone got angry, and then everyone seemed to get angry.”

Camp’s article was praised highly by centrists and conservatives who, I think it’s fair to say, are proud of themselves for their support of free speech.

That same week, the Times published an editorial which said:

Americans are losing hold of a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned.

Years ago, I drew a comic strip for the University of Massachusetts student newspaper. One cartoon caused a bunch of students to get very angry at me – so angry that they circulated a petition condemning me and my strip, which is almost as bad as shifting in their seats. But it never occurred to me that what they were doing was a threat to my free speech.

(They eventually invited me to come talk; I think there were thirty or forty of them and one me. But they ended up being nice, as people sometimes are when it’s face to face. We never ended up fully agreeing, but we agreed that we all meant well and that was pretty much the end of it.)

I’d certainly like people to be kinder. But the Times editorial board, and Emma Camp, don’t seem to give enough weight to the fact that counterspeech and criticism – even if someone is shamed – is also free speech. No matter how uncomfortable it might have made me to have a petition against me at UMASS, they still had a free speech right to circulate their petition.

Law student Trevor Floyd wrote:

The truth is that when people like Camp and Youngkin argue for more free speech on college campuses by citing to the reactions and consequences of unpopular statements, they are actually arguing against free speech. Camp at one point cites an experience where she expressed a point of view that made her classmates upset, obtusely writing that she “can tell” when a discussion “goes poorly” for her. Camp also references a Republican peer who chooses not to talk about his politics openly because he does not want his classmates to react poorly. According to Camp’s essay, these and other similar stories amount to an assault on free speech and debate.

But what Camp seems to want is speech at any time without consequence. Perhaps students in class don’t engage in “debate” in the way Camp desires because they recognize they are there to learn, not to be the loudest person in the room. Perhaps students react poorly to a peer trumpeting conservative politics because they find those politics harmful. Nobody has threatened to imprison or harm Camp for exercising her speech, but she seems to believe that a reciprocation of that exercise is essentially the same thing.

When it comes to the possible chilling of free speech on campus, centrist and right-wing defenders of campus free speech have been exquisitely sensitive. The smallest things – a disagreement that is too strongly worded, students shifting in their seats – have frequently been described as serious threats to speech on campus.

Yes, as we’ve seen this year, many of those same critics see no free speech threat when police in riot gear swarm onto campus to arrest and drag away largely peaceful protestors against Israel’s invasion of Gaza. In fact, they’ve been excusing the arrests of protestors, pointing to “content neutral” rules and some Jewish students feeling uncomfortable.

Abdallah Fayyad at VOX points out that these excuses don’t hold much water:

In many cases, universities have alleged that the protests were disruptive and pointed to the fact that some Jewish students felt that the encampments created an unsafe environment for them on campus. While harassment and intimidation can be reasons to involve law enforcement, the accusations against these protesters mostly focused on their chants and campaign slogans — and in many cases wrongly conflate anti-Israel rhetoric with antisemitism. (It’s worth noting that the arrested student protesters have largely been charged with trespassing, not harassment or violent acts.)

One of the other problems with how many universities and officials have responded to pro-Palestinian demonstrations is that they have changed their protest rules since October 7, in some instances specifically targeting Palestinian solidarity groups.

At Columbia, for example, the university issued onerous protest guidelines, including limiting the areas students are allowed to protest and requiring that demonstrations be registered weeks in advance. Northwestern University abruptly imposed a ban on erecting tents and other structures on campus, undermining ongoing protests. Indiana University preemptively changed its rules one day before its students set up an encampment by disallowing tents and changing a decades-old rule. And in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order requiring that public universities change their free speech policies and singled out pro-Palestinian groups that he said ought to be disciplined.

“Content neutral” rules, when written especially for and enforced specifically against pro-Palestine protesters, are not content neutral, no matter how neutral the words used are.

I genuinely hate that some Jewish students feel unsafe because of protests and anti-Israel chants – and, of course, the few cases of actual assault and direct intimidation are beyond the pale. But the solution is not mass arrests of students who are largely peaceful and, in many cases, themselves Jewish.

(And the concern for students feeling intimidated is one-sided; no one is talking about Palestinian students being intimidated, or Jewish anti-war activists being intimidated.)

There are some hard, complicated things to think about when it comes to large-scale student protests.

Mass arrests of peaceful protesters isn’t a hard call, though. From a free speech perspective, this should be the easiest call in the world.

That third panel may be the most complicated single panel I draw all this year! There are around thirty five characters in the panel – although of course, a bunch of those are the cops standing in formation. I only drew two of those, then copy-and-pasted to create all the others. (I did draw individual faces on most of them.)

I made the first two panels as simple as they could be, to contrast with the ultra-busy third panel.

Right now I’m pleased with how this comic looks – but of course, I only finished drawing it a couple of hours ago. I hope I’ll still like it in a year or two. And I hope you like it now.


This cartoon has three panels. The first two panels are normal-sized, while the third panel is gigantic.


A man and a woman are walking together, the woman speaking. Neither of them are students, judging from their age and their professional dress.

The man has white-blonde hair and glasses, and is wearing a blue shirt with a black tie. He looks worried. The woman has a red blouse and a black skirt, and has her hair pulled up into a bun. She is holding up a finger in a “this is my point” gesture, and is calm but a bit fervent.

For this and the next panel, the background is blank.

WOMAN: Students have a right to speak their minds without fear of being shamed or shunned. free speech on campus is in danger of being wiped out!


The two continue walking. The woman, waving her arms a bit as she gets passionate and a bit angry, continues speaking.

WOMAN: At some schools, students protested and heckled speakers! We must protect free speech from woke student totalitarians!


The man and women have come to a stop, and are looking at a protest. The man, looking concerned, speaks to the woman. The woman looks over the protest with a pleased expression, her arms folded.

The main focus in this panel is the protest – and even more, the cops in full riot gear attacking the protest. A huge line of cops in formation are marching towards the protest. Cops are leading away handcuffed protesters; one protester is being held on the ground and beaten. The protesters who aren’t being arrested look terrified. Protest signs lie on the ground.

MAN: So is this a threat to free speech?

WOMAN: No, this is fine.

Free Speech on Campus | Patreon

This entry posted in Cartooning & comics, Free speech, censorship, copyright law, etc., Palestine & Israel. Bookmark the permalink. 

6 Responses to Cartoon: Free Speech on Campus

  1. 1
    JaneDoh says:

    This is a great cartoon! I love the visual of the gray riot police in a color panel.

    FWIW, most of the free speech warriors I know definitely believe free speech means speech without consequence. Some views are genuinely unpopular on campus and free speech means that listeners get to express that too!

    Camping on campus is forbidden in a lot of places (and was before Oct 7), but I am fine with the authorities just letting the protesters be as long as they stick to peaceful protests that don’t cross the line into harassment. At the local campus here, during the first few days of encampment some people walking by were verbally harassed because they were having a conversation in Hebrew or wearing kippot, which is uncool. Now that things have stabilized, the protesters chant, and have signs, but only seem to be engaging with specific people outside the tent area who engage with them, which is fair enough. I do wish the protests here would be less pro-Hamas and less pro-ethnic cleansing the other way around, since I think it dilutes the strength of their message that Israel is mostly killing innocents and should be stopped.

  2. 2
    Dianne says:

    Camping on campus is forbidden in a lot of places (and was before Oct 7)

    At University of Chicago, at least when I was there (admittedly long ago), there was a tradition of camping out the night before class registration opened to be first in line to get a spot in one of the popular courses. The administration never had any problem with it. I wonder if that will change now. The tradition may, indeed probably has, already fallen away due to technologic change, but there is a precedent of allowing camping at U of C at least that I doubt anyone has done anything to reverse–or at least had done anything prior to last week when they allowed the police to attack the local protest encampment.

  3. 3
    Dianne says:

    A few notes about Columbia in particular:

    I have definitely seen pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian protests taking place at the same time on the Columbia campus. No violence, just some competitive chanting. I was hoping that they’d get a call and response going, but it didn’t ever get that good.

    The camp itself was remarkably well organized and neat for a spontaneous camp set up by students. Was anyone intimidated by it? I can’t say for sure. I wasn’t. My partner wasn’t. The Jewish students who were part of it certainly weren’t.

    Outside the gates of Columbia, things weren’t always as polite and well organized, so I guess I can see that locking the gates had some justification. But these were not students for the most part.

    The Kraft Center, which is not behind the campus gates had no special guard on it that I could see. It would be the first thing I’d guard if I were concerned about threats to Jewish students. So maybe the administration wasn’t all that concerned.

    The gates are still locked shut, despite the camp being dismantled and a few hundred people arrested. This strikes me as an admission that they don’t think the arrestees were the actual threat.

    The raid on Columbia and CCNY was coordinated. Which, if there is actual concern about violence or threat or even illegal trespassing, is a bit bizarre. Imagine calling 911 because there’s a bank robbery in progress in midtown and the operator says, “Cool, but we’ve got to respond to it and the one in the Village at the same time. So we’ll be there next week.”

    The students who were suspended or expelled were given 15 minutes to clear their dorm rooms, invoking unfortunate similarities to prior events in Bosnia. Not a good look in the least.

    The Columbia administration has shown no sign of recognizing their own wrongdoing. And no matter how you look at it, they are guilty of some wrongdoing. If the protesters were acting within their legal rights, obviously, the administration was wrong to arrest and expel them. If the protesters were a bunch of rabid antisemites, then why did the university admit a couple of hundred rabid antisemites? maybe some review of admissions policy is in order. If the students were just easily duped pawns of the rabid antisemites, why hasn’t the university taught them ways to recognize and assess propaganda so that they don’t fall for such things?

    I shouldn’t be disillusioned. It’s not as though I didn’t know that Ivy League universities were hypocritical businesses with dubious (at best) morals. But somehow I am still disappointed. They fell to the worst nature with no attempt (by the administration at least–the faculty and students made different decisions and shouldn’t be condemned for the administration’s failures) to try for their best.

  4. 4
    bcb says:

    Lukewarm take:

    Professional political pundits know they will never be faculty members at colleges, and will likely never be students again (if they ever were), so they only “free speech on college campuses” that affects them is the special platform given to non-academic invited speakers.

    When I walk accross campus to lunch every day I pass a bunch of proselytizers shouting about how we’re all going to hell. The professional political pundits who want to speak at college campuses could join the street preachers in shouting at students who pass them. But the pundits are so used to getting paid to speak and having people listen that they can’t imagine stooping to the level of speaking for free and having students ignore them and walk past.

    So that’s what they’re angry about when they talk about “free speech”: they want us to use taxpayer money to pay them and give them a captive audience to spew their BS when we already have street preachers spewing equally silly BS for free.

  5. 5
    Dreidel says:

    Congratulations, Ampersand — by far your most dramatic cartoon in ages!
    I love the impact of all that hyperaggressive show of force in the last panel.


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