Speech Codes Limit Campus Freedom

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December 11, 2008|3:47 pm

Millions of high school seniors have started the process of deciding which college or university to attend in the next academic year. Prospective students will take into consideration cost, academics, social life, and location. And while many students will also look at schools that reflect their interests and values, virtually none will be thinking about the school’s speech codes or free speech zones. They should. Students at colleges and universities who articulate conservative and traditional views are at particular risk of bullying and indoctrination by campus administrators and faculty who are zealous ideologues.

On college campuses during the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was students who embodied campus radicalism. Today some administrators practice a brand of radicalism intent on punishing students who dissent from the ideology of the campus power structure. In their book, The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses, authors Alan Charles Kors and Harvey A. Silverglate declare, “In a nation whose future depends upon an education in freedom, colleges and universities are teaching the values of censorship, self-censorship, and self-righteous abuse of power.”

Limits on free speech is uniquely troubling for the future health of a free society. Students become accustomed to having their rights limited, and will be more lethargic in countering possible oppression from a growing and intrusive state. Perhaps even worse, some students might be unaware that their rights have been violated because they often lack the critical thinking skills needed to challenge punishment and oppression. Educational systems where students are encouraged to memorize and regurgitate information have not properly prepared them for healthy and constructive dissent.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), has cited a list of speech codes from several universities, some later modified thanks to FIRE’s own efforts. The University of Connecticut outlawed “inconsiderate jokes,” “stereotyping,” and even “inappropriate directed laughter.” Some schools put limits on speech using phrases like any words that result in a loss of “self esteem,” or cause “embarrassment” or “psychological discomfort.”

Perhaps none are as striking as the University of Delaware’s 2007 “Diversity Facilitation Training,” where resident advisers were trained with definitions that described racist as applying “to all white people (i.e., people of European descent) living in the United States, regardless of class gender, religion, culture, or sexuality,” and reverse racism as “a term created and used by white people to deny their white privilege.” Resident Advisers after their training then peppered new students with questions like “When did you discover your sexuality?,” and in one training session students were called upon to announce their views on same sex marriage, and pressured to alter their position if it fell outside the political orthodoxy of the overseers.

These examples are just a smidgen of the outlandish practices performed by the Office of Residential Life at Delaware for the purpose of reeducating incoming freshmen. Overseers of this indoctrination actually called the program a form of “treatment” for students. Thanks to FIRE, the school was forced to amend much of the social engineering heaped on students.

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Actions like these are unsurprising to those who stand against indoctrination, coercion and support freedom of speech on campuses. Christians too are often a favorite prey of campus overseers. But completely lost on administrators is the fact that Christians and those who profess faith in other established religions already teach fairness, respect, and dignity to those who may be marginalized because of disability, race, or socio-economic background.

Just last month at the University of Mississippi, the campus newspaper The Daily Mississippian reported that the University Police interrupted a staged reading of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. It was suggested that the readings be moved to a free speech zone or what the university calls “speakers’ corners.” An English instructor named Griffith Brownlee replied by reading the First Amendment and saying “The whole country is a free speech zone.” Once the university found out it was a department-sanctioned event they called the whole affair “a misunderstanding.” As Brownlee herself pointed out in the article, one suspects the irony of attempting to limit the words of an author who wrote against totalitarian tactics was lost on some school officials.

Students and faculty, especially at public institutions, should not have to face punishment or have their liberties stifled due to expressing their beliefs. The ability to dissent, to be fully shaped by one’s own moral ethic and traditions, is the very fabric of our free society. To sacrifice or compromise these principles to political correctness, indoctrination, and social reprogramming is not in the spirit of academic excellence and a flourishing and free society. Furthermore this is a principle, regardless of political persuasion, that rational, freedom-loving people can all defend. It would be wise to remember the words of another dissenter, Martin Luther King Jr., who wrote in his famed “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

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Ray Nothstine is associate editor at the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich.
 

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