The Death of Free Speech on Campus
There is a tremendous effort these days on college campuses across the Nation to stifle free speech. More specifically, it is an attempt to stifle speech that college and university administrations has deemed to be offensive or unworthy of dialogue in an educational setting. Fortunately, states like Virginia and most recently Utah are fighting back against these self-appointed guardians of appropriate speech on campus.
I had the “honor” of knowing a local college professor who taught political science and was an admitted radical during the 1960s Free Speech movement on college campuses. Fortunately, this “radical” truly had the spirit of that movement at heart as he became a vocal opponent of the recent tendencies in higher education to stamp out speech that college administrators find “offensive,” “out of character with our mission,” or “incendiary.” He truly adhered to the admonition from the French philosopher Voltaire who stated, to paraphrase: “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This professor, before his death, became a vocal and active fighter against speech and conduct codes on campuses. What truly riled him was twofold. First, the campus where he taught had adopted an official speech code that stifled many of his lectures on race relations. This code was adopted so that minorities in classes would not be offended should they hear certain words or phrases. Thus, professors could not use the “N” word nor could they refer to the typical racial stereotypes that exist and existed out of the odd chance that it might offend a black in his class, or an Hispanic, or Asian student. Second, these speech codes, he argued, were veiled in feel-good policies and were supposed to be neutral in theory, but were coercive in practice. In effect, he argued, college administrations were hiding behind these codes in order to stamp out potentially politically-incorrect speech despite the setting and worse, the administration was deciding what was correct speech and what was incorrect speech. This professor was under the impression that higher education’s role was, among other things, to provide students with critical thinking skills so that they can then make their own decisions as to what is “correct” or “incorrect.”
What is particularly disturbing about the whole thing is that this is not a red state/blue state phenomena. For example, blue states like California, Maryland and Rhode Island fare quite favorably while states like Texas, Louisiana, and West Virginia do not fare favorably. According to FIRE- the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education- in a survey of 409 colleges in 2012, more than 62% of them had restrictive speech codes or vague/ambiguous policies that served to stifle free speech. And the trend is seen whether we are talking about public or private colleges. Some of the worst offenders are actually private colleges.
The suppression of free speech cuts both ways. For example, Harvard banned radical Bill Ayers from speaking on campus in the past just as other campuses have “banned” conservative speakers like Ann Coulter. However, by and large most of this suppression is aimed at the conservative community. At Auburn University in Georgia, a student was told to take down a banner in support of Ron Paul in 2012 under the pretense that hanging banners in windows, despite the message, is against policy and they justify it as a safety precaution. However, a walk on the Auburn campus illustrates that the policy is certainly selectively enforced, if at all.
Usually, the “news event du jour” is used as a justification for suppressing speech and actually encouraging politically correct speech. In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings, a professor hung a flyer on his office door that quoted a character from a television show. Campus police removed the flyer since guns were depicted and it was deemed to be “offensive” to some amorphous “somebody.” Ironically, campus thought/speech police everywhere don’t have a sense of humor. At a small college in Texas, students distributed a satirical flyer which supported gun control efforts with the title, “Top Ten Gun Safety Tips.” They were ordered to stop the distribution and those already out there were confiscated since the administration deemed that they “incite gun violence.” This was an anti-gun/pro-gun control publication! Inciting gun violence?
To illustrate the depth of the problem, let’s recount some recent examples that may have or likely did not make your nightly newscast:
At Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, a Christian youth group’s application to organize on campus was “deferred” because their rules stated that a leader…of a Christian group…must share Christian beliefs. This, the Univesity decided, potentially violated their policy against religion being a criteria for leadership in college-recognized organizations.
At Rutgers University in New Jersey, campus police confiscated undistributed satirical newspapers which parodied the official college student newspaper. Their offense was that they ran an article called “What About the Good Things Hitler Did?” This was a satirical piece of journalism. However, they used the “H” word in the title. Which brings me to another point. We now have two “F” words- one that refers to a human reproductive act and another that refers to homosexuals. Are we to distinguish by referring to them as F1 and F2?
At Bucknell College in Pennsylvania, a conservative student group passed out fake Obama stimulus dollars on campus to illustrate the waste of American tax dollars. These fake bills were confiscated by campus police and the group was forced to stop distributing them. By 2012, this group had been censored at least three times in less than a year.
At the University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill, a Christian student group came under fire from the administration because they dismissed a student who was not Christian. Hmmm…. Conversely, a liberal student group at Texas A&M was investigated by school administrators because they authored an editorial in the school newspaper against the erection of a cross on campus.
At Syracuse University in New York, a student was threatened with expulsion from their education program for expressing what administration officials deemed to be a racially-charged comment on his personal Facebook page. The comment simply repeated a known statistical fact about the lack of African-Americans serving the African-American community.
The University of California system had to amend their speech code after it was brought to light that there was not adequate protection for Jews. At Appalachian State, a professor was placed on administrative leave over classroom comments that were critical of student athletes on campus and for showing a documentary about (not of) pornography.
The last two examples will illustrate the extremes of the absurd! At East Carolina, school officials probed a student publication over pictures of a streaker at a school football game. They deemed that publication of a naked student running across a football field would be offensive. On the other hand, a group at DePaul University had erected a pro-life display which had been vandalized by someone. Students investigated the incident and turned over the names of the vandals to school administrators. The school then reprimanded not the vandals, but the “snitches.”
This is clearly an area where conservatives across the Nation can rally around and demand that these university and college speech codes, often enacted under the guise of “academic freedom” or an “non-hostile educational environment,” be rolled back. As the professor at the beginning of this entry illustrates, what was once a liberal mantra has come full circle and is now a conservative cause. This is akin to the conservative opposition to the Obama policy of domestic use of drone attacks.
What is even more disconcerting is how this liberal restriction on speech has infiltrated the lower grades in high school, middle school, and even grade schools. A perfect example occurred the other day in the middle school where I often substitute teach. In an eighth grade social studies class, the discussion was about the current tensions with North Korea. The regular teacher had come back early from his training and we essentially co-taught the last period. Some in this particular class were “upset” over the news reports that North Korea was saber-rattling using nuclear threats and took some discussion to ensure the kids that North Korean nuclear weapons could not reach the continental United States. When asked why North Korea would do this, instead of explaining that the current leader is basically a mentally unstable fruitcake who suffers from a Napoleon complex and is likely motivated by the fact he has a really bad hairdo, the reason given was that the United States and South Korea were provoking them by sending a B-2 bomber over there and our joint military exercises. I mentioned, however, that the US and South Korea have held these exercises yearly and that the B-2 flight was AFTER North Korea started their saber-rattling. Somehow the discussion turned to China and how bad Wal-Mart is and the fact that oil companies were evil, were unjustly profitable and bought elections, and that global warming was a fact. When I was asked, I told the students that I do not go out of my way to go to the nearest Wal-Mart, but if I am in the area and I need dog food, then I will pick some up and pay $15 for a bag rather than $25 a bag at some other, non Wal-Mart outlet. And while there, I might even picked up some made-in-China white socks because I am, at the end of the day, a consumer, not a do-gooder. As for the oil companies, I told the kids that Google and drug companies actually have higher profit margins than oil companies and that there is little evidence that oil companies buy votes in an election, although they- like Google and Pfizer and Apple- do have some sway when laws are written, but that is called “lobbying,” not “campaign donating.” Finally, I guess it was the eye roll that caught the teacher’s eye when the subject of global warming came up. Incidentally, George W. Bush was referred to as “not that smart” and Obama was characterized as “a very smart man…almost genius.”
What ensued was a lively debate between the teacher and I, instigated by the students who chanted “Debate!, Debate!,” over the issue of global warming/climate change. Most of his evidence was refuted by my facts although the teacher had a computer to look up support for climate change (I had research stored in my brain). When I told the kids that the best solutions were either to return to pre-Colombian days of no cars, no electricity (which meant no I-pods, I-phone, or video games), etc. OR expansion of nuclear energy, some started to see the light (no pun intended). The teacher did acknowledge that many of Obama’s green energy initiatives were a bust and went bankrupt (although that was explained as oil company opposition). Naturally, many of these students were averse to the nuclear energy option because of what happened at… well, they could not name anything although the teacher brought up Chernobyl (faulty design and human error), Three Mile Island (much ado about little), and Japan (an earthquake). But it is amazing what a little information can do.
The next day, several students from that class, came up to me and explained they had looked up what I said and they found the information rather readily at home on their computers. They also said they were never told that information was out there, that they just took for granted what their teachers said. The teacher himself thanked me for the lively debate which ended with an “we are running out of time and this is way off topic” admission that he was losing the debate and some students in the process. He did also tell me in a round-about way that dissemination of the opposing view to global warming was against the New Jersey core curriculum standards. In other words, teachers have to teach the politically correct, often liberal viewpoint to students.
In the same way, today’s students in college have to adhere to a politically correct code of behavior or speech. When we control speech, we control the discussion and the dialogue. This is not what a democracy is about and amounts to nothing more than political indoctrination to a liberal viewpoint. In order to avoid possibly offending a single person or group, students must think twice…three times before writing a word or making a statement. Sometimes it is even thinking twice before associating with a recognized group on campus.
I do not like Bill Ayers or Ward Churchill any more than any other reader here any more than the folks over at Dailykos like Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh. They are free to say and think and believe as they want about Coulter and Limbaugh just as we are free to do the same with regards to Ayers or Churchill. But does that mean we should advocate them shutting up or denying them a platform to prove their stupidity? Free speech is free speech and it cuts both ways. Suppressing it in the guise of speech codes on campus or harassing groups because they do not tow the liberal line would have our Founders covering their eyes in disgust.