Greg Lukianoff is president of the estimable Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which monitors and campaigns for free speech on American college campuses. One of their main activities is lobbying against speech codes, codes that I consider both unnecessary and undemocratic in universities. After all, students are about 18 when they arrive at an American university, and that’s old enough to be able to tolerate speech, hateful or not, without beefing about being “offended.”
Moreover, one of the main values of college, as I see it, is to expose students to a diversity of viewpoints, which is the only way to examine if yours are correct. It’s a growing experience that absolutely requires freedom of expression, even if you don’t like what you hear.
In the October 24 issue of the New York Times, “Feigning free speech on campus,” Lukianoff bemoans the increasing suppression of the First Amendment on campuses:
Colleges and universities are supposed to be bastions of unbridled inquiry and expression, but they probably do as much to repress free speech as any other institution in young people’s lives. In doing so, they discourage civic engagement at a time when debates over deficits and taxes should make young people pay more attention, not less.
Since the 1980s, in part because of “political correctness” concerns about racially insensitive speech and sexual harassment, and in part because of the dramatic expansion in the ranks of nonfaculty campus administrators, colleges have enacted stringent speech codes. These codes are sometimes well intended but, outside of the ivory tower, would violate the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech. From protests and rallies to displays of posters and flags, students have been severely constrained in their ability to demonstrate their beliefs. The speech codes are at times intended to enforce civility, but they often backfire, suppressing free expression instead of allowing for open debate of controversial issues.
You might wonder why students on campuses don’t have the same Constitutional rights as Americans as a whole. Well, public universities do, but schools like the University of Chicago aren’t required to abide by the Constitution when it comes to speech.
As Lukianoff notes:
In a study of 392 campus speech codes last year, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, where I work, found that 65 percent of the colleges had policies that in our view violated the Constitution’s guarantee of the right to free speech.
How does this play out? Lukianoff gives a few chilling examples. My own alma mater for graduate school is one:
Last year, incoming Harvard freshmen were pressured by campus officials to sign an oath promising to act with “civility” and “inclusiveness” and affirming that “kindness holds a place on par with intellectual attainment.” Harry R. Lewis, a computer science professor and a former dean of Harvard College, was quick to criticize the oath. “For Harvard to ‘invite’ people to pledge to kindness is unwise, and sets a terrible precedent,” he wrote on his blog. “It is a promise to control one’s thoughts.”
This is at Harvard, for crying out loud: American’s flagship university! Here are two more:
Last month, Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., forbade students toprotest an appearance by Representative Paul D. Ryan, the Republican vice-presidential nominee. Why? According to university policy, students must apply 10 business days in advance to demonstrate in the college’s tiny “free speech zone” — and Mr. Ryan’s visit was announced on a Sunday, two days before his Tuesday visit.
Also last month, a student at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, was blocked from putting a notice on her door arguing that neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney was fit for office. (She successfully appealed.) And over the summer, a federal judge struck down the University of Cincinnati’s “free speech zone,” which had limited demonstrations to 0.1 percent of the campus.
Sadly, my own school has had a FIRE speech-code rating of “red” for some time, primarily because of its policies against “hate speech” and speech that is biased. “Red” means this:
A “red light” institution has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.
Several other of our policies, including free speech zones and the right of the university to remove posting in student residences that are deemed offensive, are rated “yellow light,” meaning “policies [that]restrict a more limited amount of protected expression or, by virtue of their vague wording, could too easily be used to restrict protected expression.
This distresses me. If someone wants to make a speech on campus calling me a “dirty Jew,” then by all means let them. I’ll defend myself with other speech, and defend their right to insult my religion, politics, or anything else. Speech-code policies turn campuses into mini Islamic Republics, in which anybody can be offended and force authorities to stifle whatever bothers them. College students are adults, and should have the same rights as American adults who aren’t in college. They aren’t babies whose sensitive feelings need to be coddled.
Even more sadly, the students don’t feel safe to speak out. The most distressing part of Lukianoff’s piece is this:
A 2010 study by the American Association of Colleges and Universities of 24,000 college students and 9,000 faculty and staff members found that only 35.6 percent of the students — and only 18.5 percent of the faculty and staff — strongly agreed that it was “safe to hold unpopular positions on campus.”
Which misguided administrators have created regulations that make students wary of taking unpopular positions? It’s political correctness gone wild.