Free speech

A New Age of Campus Censorship

When I published my first book, Unlearning Liberty, in 2012, I felt a bit optimistic that the situation for free speech on campus was improving. Not that the state of free speech on campus was good by any means, but it seemed as though there had been improvement since the  blizzard of weird cases that my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), saw from 2007 to 2008.

That academic year included the following:

Briefly Less Ideological

After that spasm of lunacy, we were still dealing with preposterous cases of campus censorship, but many were less ideological and more of the classic, “Don’t you dare criticize my university” type of censorship. This trend arose in late 2008, represented by a Michigan State University student found guilty of violating her school’s Internet policy after politely emailing a number of professors some serious concerns she and others had about the administration’s plan to shorten the length of the fall semester.

This kind of censorship also includes one of my “favorite” cases, which involved a professor first getting in trouble for quoting one of my all-time favorite, yet short-lived shows, Firefly, and then being punished again for implying that the administration that took it down was “fascist.” A case in a similar vein included a student at the University of Georgia, who was threatened with punishment after complaining to the parking services about the lack of scooter parking on campus.

Even the dark cloud of campus speech codes seemed to be slowly lifting. While the numbers are still absurd (55 percent according to FIRE’s 2015 survey), the percentage of schools that maintained “red light” (severely unconstitutional) speech codes had decreased since a high of 75 percent back in 2007.

Here we are again: In the last two years, political correctness has surged back with a vengeance, and campus free speech has probably not come under greater threat since the battles of the late 1980s and early ’90s.

Wanting Peace and Quiet

The first sign that things were about to get much worse came from the Department of Education when it issued its famous “blueprint” for harassment policies in a settlement with the University of Montana in 2013. In that agreement—proclaimed by the Department of Education and the Department of Justice as a “blueprint for colleges and universities throughout the country to protect students from sexual harassment and assault”—the agencies defined harassment in a way that would be laughed out of court if challenged.

A letter sent to me from the head of the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights seemed to backtrack from the blueprint somewhat. But the fight goes on, as colleges nationwide have begun to adopt the broad blueprint definition. Walter Olson penned an important blog entry recently explaining how an increasingly aggressive Department of Education is encouraging not only campus due process violations in relationship to harassment and assault, but speech-policing as well.

Here Come the Feds

And the blueprint was just an omen of things to come. While the increased threat to free speech and due process from the federal government was surely bad enough, it was at least predictable. The most distressing change over the last year or so has been the rise in students demanding freedom from speech they dislike rather than freedom of speech.

Since my book, Freedom From Speech’s release last September, protections for free speech on campus have deteriorated. An examination of our “10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech” for 2014 tells only part of the story. A new proposed program at Ithaca College to police and potentially punish “microaggressions” is only one manifestation of the increased focus on making students speak correctly according to the increasingly narrow standards of the campus community.

Of course, there has been the recent crackdown on racist or insensitive speech on campus. While I’ve never made any bones about the fact that fraternities consistently engage in some of the least sympathetic speech that we at FIRE are asked to defend, there can also be little doubt that the immediate expulsion of students at the University of Oklahoma for engaging in a racist chant violated both due process and free speech.

Punishing Racial Chants

This case seems to have emboldened universities, including the University of South Carolina, which immediately suspended a student for allegedly writing a racist slur on the whiteboard. The University of Mary Washington dissolved its men’s rugby team because some of its members were recorded singing a raucous, bawdy song at an off-campus party. At Duke, the university is refusing to give additional details about a student who allegedly publicly displayed a noose on campus, other than to say the student is being investigated for “potential criminal violations.” Duke, by the way, should remember that in a similar incident in 1997, the perpetrators ended up, in fact, being two black students who claimed they were trying to protest against racism.

Meanwhile, at Bucknell University, three students were summarily expelled after allegedly using a racial slur on a radio program. Bucknell has refused to reveal any information about the context of the alleged racial slurs; an administrator actually claimed that “context really doesn’t matter once you see what was said.” It’s hard to imagine a more unscholarly lesson to be teaching students. Context always matters, and if students were using racial epithets to mock racists for example, they would be acting in the tradition of comedians such as the legendary Lenny Bruce, Chris Rock, and many, many more.

While the Department of Education’s blueprint is certainly a contributing factor to why things have gotten worse on campus, why students themselves have become so ready to censor their fellow students is not quite clear. Perhaps we’ve reached a kind of critical mass of students raised to believe not only that they have a “right not to be offended,” but also that “safety” means not a lack of danger, but rather something more like perfect emotional comfort—or even the right not to be exposed to words or ideas that upset you.

This unfortunate renaissance in campus speech-policing comes at a time when global consensus seems to be turning increasingly against truly free speech. I am hopeful that the pendulum will swing back towards a robust and truly pluralistic vision of freedom of speech, but we can’t rely on this to simply happen on its own. Free speech has always been a fragile right, and if we lose it on campus, we risk losing it entirely.

3 thoughts on “A New Age of Campus Censorship”

  1. Thanks for the good work and perspective. It is pretty discouraging. I am an Ivy League alumnus and active in my local club; we recently hosted a group of current seniors. Each was asked to say a few words. Few could do so with any authority or grace. Just meanderings of, like, you know, whatever? And, yeah!

    What is the point of free speech if they have nothing to say?

  2. Too bad there isn’t an organization available to PROTECT students’ right to free speech. It seems the only thing your org is good for is COMPLAINING about the unconstitutional behavior of our state university administrators. Gee, thanks loads, Greg! :(

  3. After the Civil War, there was the question of what to do with the newly-freed slaves — how to grant them the full rights of citizenship, how to ensure they enjoyed the same Natural Law (Locke) rights of “life, liberty, and property (pursuit of happiness): as everyone else.

    Should this be done “top-down” by governmental fiat or “bottom-up” via a multitude of ballot boxes (and candidates seeking their votes) — the Fourteenth Amendment imposing Federal authority upon State/Local government on their behalf versus the 15th Amendment giving them the power to vote (and serve) in the State/Local government.

    WEB DuBois had both a Masters & Doctorate from Harvard in an era when very few people (of any race) went to college, many not even going to high school. A co-founder of the NAACP, DuBois argued for the top-down approach. He supported the use of governmental power to coerce changes in attitudes and to punish those who failed to comply.

    His viewpoint is largely reflected in higher education today. Racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. is prohibited by force — by punishment of those who dare express it, punishment so draconian that no one dares do it.

    What’s neither mentioned nor reflected in higher education is the opposing viewpoint — that of using self-interest to change attitudes and viewpoints — the approach folks like Booker T Washington & George Washington Carver.

    Imagine that you are a White racist farmer and your soil is depleted and the Black man down the road, who went to college and learned “scientific agriculture”, is able to get a larger harvest on worse soil than you because he knows how to use legumes (peanuts) to put Nitrogen into the soil while you don’t even know what Nitrogen even is. His cows aren’t dying like yours are because he knows how to build a silo that prevents the forage inside from going bad. He also knows how to treat the infection that your dog got after getting tangled in that old rusty barbed wire, you really like this dog and don’t want to have to shoot him.

    And your wife, whom you also very much like, is pregnant with what will be your first child. She’s terrified of dying in childbirth, like her sister did — and you are as well. Now the Black man’s wife didn’t die in childbirth last summer because he knew another Black man who’d been to medical school (which a lot of doctors hadn’t back then) and knew stuff that prevented her from dying in childbirth.

    At what point is it no longer worth being a racist? At what point might you want to be friends with the Black man down the road — not because the government is making you but because of your own self interest? After all, someone who saves your wife, your favorite dog and your farm can’t be all bad, can he?

    The biggest distinction between the two approaches is that one involves the exercise of power and the other doesn’t — there are a lot of people in academia who wouldn’t have jobs if the other approach were taken…

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