College police state

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Anti-COVID Policies on Campus Are Akin to a ‘Police State’

Students around the country have caught on to the fact that social-distancing guidelines do not pertain as long you’re violating those guidelines in service to the cause of social justice.

by Noah Rothman

Colleges and universities dreaded this day. The schools that closed their doors and residency halls in a panic last spring knew their stasis could not last into the next academic year—not without severe financial consequences. Some schools, particularly those with flush endowments and prestigious reputations, can afford to remain closed. Most cannot. And those institutions that have reopened are now turning to a variety of proactive methods for limiting the risk of a COVID outbreak—some of which even a New York Times dispatch casually described as reminiscent of a “police state.”

In schools around the country, students are ordered to sign “social contracts,” which compel them to avoid social gatherings and engage in risk-mitigating behaviors when not in self-imposed isolation. Those “contracts” are in effect whether the student is on or off-campus, and they have teeth if their terms are violated.

Syracuse University publicly denounced students who held a mask-less gathering on the campus’s outdoor “quad” and suspended 23 following a review of campus security footage. At Purdue University, 36 students were suspended after they were found to have engaged in reckless behavior at an off-campus event. Fifteen Marist College students were suspended after they flouted on-campus guidelines at an off-campus event.

More troubling, some universities have taken to policing the conduct of their students through forensic methods. Pennsylvania State University placed a fraternity on interim suspension after videos were posted to social media showing 15 students in an indoor setting with non-students failing to wear masks or observe social-distancing. Boston-based Northeastern University administrators recently caught wind of a student conducting a poll of fellow first-year classmates via social media asking who among them would choose to attend a party. Of the 755 respondents, 115 said they would. The college then demanded the names of those students who had responded in the affirmative so they could be chastised and threatened with rescinded admission.

This emerging system of grid-style social management no longer ends at the edge of campus. Students are increasingly being asked to serve as informants—monitoring their peers and reporting the intelligence they gather to authorities.

Many schools have established anonymous tip lines. Some fear the contact tracing regime to which students must consent would force them to denounce their friends and associates who may have violated social-distancing protocols. The radical measures some schools are adopting aren’t limited to students alone. In Columbia, South Carolina, the city council has amended the municipality’s zoning code to “penalize landlords” whose properties host off-campus parties for returning University of South Carolina students.

ProPublica’s Alec MacGillis proposed an interesting theory to explain the “extraordinary mixed messages” coming from colleges that welcome students back onto campus but resort to every available method to ensure that experience isn’t a social one. Lockdown, he suggests, has become an identity—particularly for those who identify as Democrats. Colleges risk severe financial hardships or even insolvency by going all-digital, so the only ideologically-consistent alternative for these institutions is to consign those in their orbits to the most draconian “social-distancing-ethic” they can get away with.

And yet, this “ethic” is selectively enforced. As recently as this weekend, Washington D.C. played host to a raucous dance party masquerading as a protest against the latest focus of liberal electoral anxiety: Postmaster General Louis DeJoy. DJs spun from a makeshift stage. Hundreds of young adults raved. Masks were few and far between and social-distancing was not part of the program.

For months, the protests around the country have raged, alternating between solemn rallies and bacchanalian revelries. There is no social stigma attached to activities like these, and that is surely part of their appeal. Those who are beholden to the “ethic” MacGillis identified have carved out a special exemption for anyone engaged in what they deem virtuous political activism.

Unsurprisingly, students around the country have caught on to the fact that social-distancing guidelines do not pertain as long you’re violating those guidelines in service to the cause of social justice. Shoulder-to-shoulder mass gatherings and the disruption they bring to campus life are a common sight. Are these demonstrations a threat to public health? Perhaps. But, as one University of Florida official guaranteed students, mass gatherings are vastly more effective vehicles for change than any online facsimile. “Symbolically, gathering people like that,” University of Florida law professor Clay Calvert reflected, “it can send a more powerful message.”

Indeed, and in more ways than one. The message colleges are sending their students (and anyone in their proximity) has been received loud and clear: If you want any semblance of the social experience your exorbitant undergraduate tuition rates are supposed to buy you, join the march. There is an element of extortion of the worst sort at work here. It is, at the very least, tacit coercion by university officials and their allies to engage in preferred political activities. That may be anathema to most civic-minded Americans, but what would a “police state” be without a little totalitarianism?

Noah Rothman is the Associate Editor of Commentary and the author of Unjust: Social Justice and the Unmaking of America.

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