Civility is a watchword on campuses these days–partly because it is an admirable characteristic, partly because the word is always useful as an apparently benign cover for censorship.
From my work defending student and faculty speech for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, I know that many faculty members already recognize civility as a velvet glove concealing an iron fist. It would be hard not to; trade publications like The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed regularly feature stories of professors facing negative consequences for expression deemed too strident.
Firing Tenured Professor
Inside Higher Ed reported that Professor Victoria McCard of the University of North Georgia was suspended, banished from campus, and faces termination proceedings for allegedly being insufficiently polite to a visiting lecturer, whom she challenged during a public presentation. Professor McCard has been charged under the university’s employee handbook, which allows for punishment for “discourteous” behavior. That the University of North Georgia apparently sees fit to fire a tenured professor for being rude in public should worry faculty members everywhere.
Of course, that assumes that faculty members weren’t already worried about the consequences of being judged “uncivil” by their employers. To feel this chill, one need not share the views of Professors David Guth, placed on administrative leave by the University of Kansas for tweets critical of the National Rifle Association, or Steven Salaita, who infamously lost a position he had been offered following the focus on his tweets criticizing Israel. Rather, professors need only possess viewpoints that differ from those of their peers or supervisors.
Seeking to justify the revocation of Salaita’s offer, University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise argued that tenured professors shoulder “a heavy responsibility to continue the traditions of scholarship and civility.” Accordingly, per Chancellor Wise, “personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them” were therefore forbidden. But if professors may be subject to discipline for “abusing viewpoints,” and if “demeaning” an idea breaks with Chancellor Wise’s notion of civility,” then liberal scholarship—pitting ideas against each other in an ongoing search for truth—is impossible.
Students, too, are routinely punished for speech deemed to be uncivil. Examples abound, involving core protected expression like political protest and speech as fleeting and commonplace as muttered profanity.
‘Actions of Incivility’
San Francisco State University students Leigh Wolf and Trent Downes faced charges for “actions of incivility” and a five-month-long institutional investigation following their participation in a College Republicans “anti-terrorism rally.” During the rally, Wolf and Downes stepped on butcher paper that had been painted to resemble the Hamas and Hezbollah flags.
A formal complaint filed by a student nearly two weeks later charged that the two had “very evidently walked over and trekked over a banner with Arabic script . . . [that] represented the word ‘Allah.’” Wolf and Downes were investigated for violating school policy, which stated that students must be “civil to one another and to others in the campus community.” After a lengthy review, the students were cleared; after they filed a First Amendment lawsuit shortly thereafter, a federal magistrate judge issued an injunction preventing the California State University system from enforcing the policy.
On the other end of the spectrum, after receiving a poor grade on an Oral Communications assignment, Isaac Rosenbloom, a student at Mississippi’s Hinds Community College, told another student after class that the mark was going to “f–k up [his] entire GPA.” After his professor overheard his remark, Rosenbloom was found guilty of “flagrant disrespect” and involuntarily withdrawn from the class. (School policy prohibited “vulgarity.”) The forced withdrawal caused the 29-year-old father of two to lose his financial aid, effectively ending his studies. Two unsuccessful appeals followed. Only after FIRE secured legal representation for Rosenbloom did the college rescind the findings.
These are just two examples of discipline for impolite expression. FIRE’s case archives include many more: the student expelled from university housing for offending a rival college’s hockey coach via questions for a journalism assignment; the student forbidden from walking at graduation after a “negative social media exchange” in which he encouraged other students to attend a campus discussion on an institution’s flawed response to a tornado; and the student charged with “disorderly conduct” for sending the school’s parking services an email complaining about the lack of parking spaces for scooters. Recent headlines provide still further examples, as university presidents ignore the First Amendment and abandon due process in a rush to punish controversial orcrude speech.
For a nation exhausted by daily partisan brawling and incentivized offense, calls for civility evoke a vague nostalgia for the genial tranquility that surely reigned before “social media” turned us into trolls. (No matter that the good old days didn’t actually exist, at least not quite like that.) On campus, this powerful yearning for “civility” is already being manipulated to justify censorship of speech that campus administrators would rather not hear—and we should all be concerned about the consequences.
Will Creeley is Vice President of Legal and Public Advocacy at FIRE.