Tag Archives: censorship

How Colleges Promote Censorship and Undermine Free Speech

In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley writes: “There isn’t any need for a civilized man to bear anything that’s seriously unpleasant.”  In his sanitized future, general happiness and social stability are achieved not via threats of legal action but rather through perfect genetic and behavioral engineering, endless indoctrination, anodyne feel-good phrases and drugs, and organized outlets for intense emotion and lust.  “That is the secret of happiness and virtue–liking what you’ve got to do,” explains Huxley’s Director of Hatcheries (where test-tube babies are produced).

Alas, we’re not there yet, hence the recourse to crude legal instruments backed up by moral grandstanding is still essential. Given the pesky First Amendment, however, thus far valid in contemporary America despite ever more frequent attacks, not just any claim to hurt feelings can be used to shut down others’ speech. Learning which words are most effective in preventing the expression of views and comments we don’t like is, therefore, a crucial step if one wants to be successful in ushering in the utopian future.

In more legalistic terms, offending words and gestures can be said to deprive college women of the right to an equal education, thus constituting illegal discrimination. That is the language of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs that receive federal funds.  Expanded over the years to include such categories as “hostile environment harassment,” Title IX turned out to be a godsend to those determined to go through life free of unpleasant words, vulgar jokes, suggestive glances, and, as has become clear, ideas and viewpoints they dislike. In today’s academy, insisting that one feels unsafe or threatened is a routine and usually effective opening move in attempts at controlling others’ words and attitudes.

A recent example:  A student group called Feminists United has filed a Title IX lawsuit against the University of Mary Washington, alleging that by declining to ban access to Yik Yak, the school failed to protect them from disagreeable posts on the anonymous app.  The requisite linguistic expertise was on full display, with the suit referring to the “overtly and/or sexist/threatening” anonymous messages on Yik Yak, which allegedly created a “hostile environment” for the group.

True, there are slight glitches in the group’s charges. The Supreme Court standard (established in the 1999 case Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education) stipulated that harassment becomes discriminatory conduct for which schools are liable only when it is “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit.”

Susan Kruth, staff attorney at the indefatigable Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a non-partisan organization defending the First Amendment on American campuses, has explained why the university in the Yik Yak case did nothing wrong.:

Universities should respond to true threats and to serious allegations of sexual harassment, and they can provide non-punitive resources to people who encounter offensive speech. But to the extent that remarks are merely sexist or offensive, a public university must recognize that such language is protected under the First Amendment and decline to take unlawful steps to censor it. Throughout their complaint, the plaintiffs conflate alleged threats and a pattern of conduct that they claim deprived them of educational benefits with remarks or behavior that made them uncomfortable.

In commenting on the lawsuit recently, another FIRE staffer, Communications Manager Daniel Burnett, cited the 2003 Supreme Court case Virginia v. Black, which defined  “true threats”—valid  exceptions to the First Amendment–as “those statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals.”

However, because courts have regarded intimidation as a type of true threat, it becomes advantageous for complainants to assert that they indeed were placed in fear of bodily harm or death. These magic words then set in motion a series of potentially draconian consequences, with the alleged perpetrator usually denied due process as schools, trying to save themselves from lawsuits or perhaps joining in with current campus orthodoxies, cave in to complainants in short order.  Ironically, it is only when sued by those charged with such offenses that universities are likely to rediscover the beauties of First Amendment protections.

A further irony of the current campus climate is that it is not speakers who incite the audience to violence but rather outraged students who threaten speakers and their supporters with violence. Yet universities are acting as if this potential for violence is a reason to prevent unpopular views from being heard – a perfect example of the power of a “heckler’s veto” to silence speakers in an arena where free and full discussion ought to be promoted: the university.

The result is that campus speech censors have a positive incentive to overreact.  They become agitated, claiming they feel unsafe, and threaten violence—in response to which administrators and even campus police rapidly capitulate.  And in the downward spiral that has been played out on numerous campuses over many years now, students ironically demonstrate ever greater physical and verbal aggression as they insist on their discomfort, vulnerability, and fear.

FIRE’s Susan Kruth has highlighted the role of the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), charged with enforcing Title IX, in promoting a redefinition of sexual harassment and sexual assault so broad and vague that it covers mere “speech or conduct of a sexual nature,” which in practice means whatever anyone finds offensive. The low standards encouraged by the OCR, in conjunction with colleges’ natural aversion to lawsuits, have resulted in the campus environment by now familiar to us all, even though these low standards would never carry the day in a court of law.

Apart from the unconstitutionality of such broad definitions, it is well worth asking whether we really want to live in a society where you can’t even make a sexual allusion or tell a joke, where any thoughtless, critical, or offensive comment—not to mention an unpopular viewpoint–can be construed as harassment.  According to many would-be censors, the answer is yes, provided it’s the other guy whose speech is to be curtailed, never mine.

One has to marvel at the touching innocence of so many American students. Lacking experience of what it’s like to live in a society in which some speech is prohibited ostensibly for the greater good, they apparently have little imagination of what such a society would entail. It seems not to occur to them (or to their faculty and administrative abettors) that the very vagueness of what could cause offense means ever more words will need to be avoided, just to be on the safe side.  Yet numerous accounts exist of all the countries around the globe where speech is or has been curtailed by the state and its institutions, with frightening and violent consequences.

It’s an old observation, but nonetheless routinely ignored by campus vigilantes.  More than twenty years ago, for example, FEMISA, an electronic list devoted to feminism, gender, and international relations, was discussing kicking out some men who posted comments women on the list didn’t like.  I was among the very few who argued on that list for the importance of free speech, which–in that particular context–meant tolerating the messages of male contributors whose words were making them unpopular.

Excluding those whose views we did not like, I said, would soon enough lead to instituting censorship, public humiliation, shunning, ganging‑up‑on, etc., so as to protect the feelings and views of the rest.  I contended that even men thought to express obnoxious views should not be struck from the list, and that intolerance of ideas we dislike can quickly move into the prohibitory mode as if the people with whom we disagree had no right to speak freely.  This was a dangerous turn, as I knew then and have had confirmed numerous times since.

Kate Zhou, a political science professor originally from China, sent a long message to FEMISA supporting my position and explaining her own:

I am a feminist from China. For many years, sexist language was banned by the Chinese state (at least in the urban public sphere). Urban Chinese women were very much “free” from sexist verbal attacks. Many women including myself were willing to give up freedom for some degree of protection and security.  When everyone lost the freedom to speak, women’s independent voice was also gone. When women’s voices were silenced, women suffered.

 Yes, we did not have to be bothered by sexist language and pornography. But we could not complain that we had to line up two or three hours for basic food. We had to take less interesting work because we had to take care of the family.  It was not politically correct to complain about the double burden.

Is it clear to feminists that there has been no feminist movement in those countries that practice state censorship? My experience in China seems to suggest that women are often victims of any kind of censorship. As a feminist, I believe that women have the ability and power to defend their interests if given a chance. We should welcome complex and diversified debates. Difficult and complex debates help to train us. If we try to shut someone up because we dislike what he has to say, we just confirm our weakness and sexism.   [Kate Zhou, May 5, 1995].

Not surprisingly, FEMISA did not heed this sound advice. Instead, after more comments from argumentative men –who in some cases merely pointed out that women routinely posted hateful language about men, while men’s objections and rejoinders were treated as intolerable flames–the list owners barred various men from posting and moved the entire list onto “moderated” status, the better to control its discussions.

A similar case affected me directly. For nothing more than disagreeing with the predominant views on certain subjects on the Women’s Studies E-mail List (WMST-L), I (unlike virtually all the other 5,000 subscribers to that list) was placed on “moderated” status for ten years, so that no message of mine could be posted without first being vetted by the list’s overseers.  The result was, of course, as intended: Not eager to waste my time, I participated ever less on the list, to the point that my contributions decreased to almost zero. Why should anyone on the list have to be upset by divergent viewpoints?

Now, however, entire institutions do this dirty work for fragile feminists and others demanding protection from the verbal slings and arrows of people who dare voice dissenting views.  The state and its apparatuses must, of course, keep its grubby hands off our bodies, but please, please, let it control words, gestures, even thoughts.

We’ve come a long way, baby.

Intimidated Faculty Find a New Way to Capitulate

Last week’s campus irritant,  a story in the Wall Street Journal, “Faculty’s New Focus: Don’t Offend,” claimed that an increasing number of professors are changing the contents of their syllabi.

The story exposes the advent of bias response teams and undergraduates demanding a supportive, untroubled campus experience, along with the Obama Administration’s “Dear Colleague” letters on sexual matters, has intimidated teachers and made them self-protective. They don’t want to provoke a student complaint about an assigned book that has the n-word or a scene of sexual violence or even humor.

The Lens of Grievance

Although the story doesn’t explain further, we can say that it won’t matter if the complaint is groundless or absurd. The fact is that the offended student is a hypersensitive, self-dramatizing adolescent who, apart from his personal issues, has been keyed up by other professors and administrators who see the world through the lens of grievance.  Even if the professor is entirely cleared of any wrongdoing, who wants the aggravation? With the Federal government involved, the process can go on for weeks or months. The administrators, too, aren’t there to support their teacher colleagues. They’re there to protect the institution.

Professors know this. They know, also, that once the procedural gears of a complaint start turning, their colleagues and admiring students will be of little help. Many of them won’t want to get involved, and those who do will be frustrated by the question: How? When a group of principled professors approaches the dean about halting a ridiculous persecution, all the dean has to say is, “I know, I know, but the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education makes us take every one of those complaints VERY seriously. My hands are tied.”

A Rational and Smooth Exit

And so, says The Journal, professors are taking the rational and smooth way out. They are removing materials from a class that might offend racial, sexual, and other politically correct scruples. A film teacher in the story admits that he has pulled Birth of a Nation, The Bank Dick, and Tootsie from his courses. The first film is white supremacist propaganda, the second, with W. C. Fields, pokes fun at blandness, and the third trades in “gender stereotypes.” (I won’t comment on the more serious problem with Tootsie, namely, that it is one of those insufferably cute ’80s films that should be shelved forever.)

The academic objection to this revision is obvious, but such capitulations to political correctness have been happening so often and for so long that it is hard to get exercised over them anymore. The history of higher education for the last half-century clearly says that it wasn’t going to take long for the ideals of higher education to give way to this rising demand that offense never transpire.

I sense in my colleagues, liberal and conservatives both, a certain fatalism about the whole thing. Many liberals regret the hypersensitivity that pressures them to delete Huck Finn and the operas of Wagner. They know that the absence of D. W. Griffith’s epic from a course in the history of film distorts the actual history of film. They realize, too, that sensitivity is an anti-intellectual condition, and that they would prefer to examine racist elements from the past, not pretend that they didn’t exist.

Offended by “The Bank Dick”

But all those hesitations don’t alter what they believe is a juggernaut that smashes anything that gets in the way. Is it really worth standing up and risking a two-month headache when all you have to do in your week on 1930s Hollywood comedy is drop The Bank Dick and insert It Happened One Night? This is the smart way to run an academic career, especially when you find that academia has numerous apologists for the sensitivity regime such as the professor of educational leadership who tells the Wall Street Journal:

There’s a tremendous amount of research in higher education showing different experiences for people by race, gender or sexual orientation or religion…. [These students] need a place to go to get support and report issues they are having.

The vagueness of the language–“different experiences,” “report issues”–is deliberate, and it has the effect of making professors uncertain. A professor not only has to choose his words because of their truth, that is, on the grounds of their correspondence to the object under discussion. He also must consider their impact on the students — not on the students as a whole, but on each group identity represented in the chairs throughout the room.

It’s a recipe for guardedness. The more the rules operate by insinuation, the less free and open is the classroom. The more sensitive the students are (and encouraged to report any discomfort they undergo), the more circumspect the teachers will be.

The days of the strong mentor and the teacher who is powerful and engaging enough to inspire disciples and alter students’ lives are numbered.

Feminist Censored from Censorship Panel

British feminist Julie Bindel  was scheduled to speak at Manchester University on a panel discussing the subject “From Liberation to Censorship: Does Modern Feminism Have a Problem with Free Speech?’ That question was answered by the university student union, which canceled her appearance on the panel as a potential violation of “safe space” for transgender students at the school.

Bindel is in bad odor with radical feminists for two incorrect opinions:  she doesn’t think transgender females are real women, and she does not think prostitution is a form of female empowerment that should be legalized. Though she was not intending to talk about the transgender issue, the student union stated that “her views and comments towards trans people… could incite hatred towards and exclusion of our trans students.”

Bindel, a well-known  activist campaigning against violence toward women, has been “no platformed” (banned) as a speaker several times after  protests from the gay and transgender lobbies.

The Road to Censorship, Paved With Good Intentions

For more than a decade, universities have forced Christian student groups to fight a rather puzzling battle. In a campus environment where it’s assumed that Democratic student groups can reserve leadership for Democrats, environmentalist groups can be run by actual environmentalists, and socialist groups can have socialist leaders, Christian groups have been fighting for the right to Christian leadership. The conflict is between the civil liberties of Christian organizations and university nondiscrimination policies, which tend to prohibit “religious” discrimination but permit groups to discriminate on the basis of ideology and politics.

The first truly public fight occurred at Tufts University, where an openly lesbian woman attempted to lead Tufts Christian Fellowship, expressing disagreement not only with the group’s religious beliefs but also a desire to use her leadership platform to openly advocate her dissenting views. Not content to form her own group or to lead other Christian groups that promised to welcome her with open arms, she determined that every group on campus had to agree with her vision of sexual morality.

Continue reading The Road to Censorship, Paved With Good Intentions

Great Moments in College Censorship

One of the Thomas Jefferson Center’s 2010 “Muzzle Awards” for achievement in censorship goes to the president and administration of Southwestern College in Chulah Vista, California. Like many censorship-minded colleges, Southwestern confines student protesters to a tiny area of the campus, far from most student traffic. Shouting, “Let’s go where they can hear us,” students protesting budget cuts last fall moved off the “free speech patio” and were stopped by campus police. Three professors who joined the demonstration were banned from campus pending a criminal investigation. The ban and the threat of criminal investigation were dropped after two weeks, but official reprimands were placed on their records.

– Professor Gloria Gadsden was suspended for more than a month by East Stroudsburg University (Pa.) for writing two tongue-in-cheek remarks on Facebook, both accompanied by “smiley face” symbols: “Had a good day today. Didn’t want to kill even one student” and “Does anyone know where I can find a very discreet hitman? Yes, it’s been that kind of day.” Gadsden was forced to undergo psychological fitness tests She was allowed back on campus after intervention of the Foundation for Equal Rights in Education (FIRE).

– Greg Lukianoff, president of FIRE, said he thought the university most in need of public shaming is Yale, first for withdrawing the Danish cartoons from a Yale University Press book about them, and second, for gearing up to censor a T-shirt citing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line calling Harvard men “sissies.” Administrators were reportedly ready to ban the shirt, prepared for the Yale-Harvard football game, but the students avoided Yale’s firm commitment to censorship by withdrawing the shirt. The full line, spoken by a character in This Side of Paradise is: “I want to go to Princeton, I don’t know why, but I think of all Harvard men as sissies, like I used to be, and all Yale men as wearing big blue sweaters and smoking pipes.”

Canada’s Censorship Culture

The flap over the hecklers’ veto of Anne Coulter at the University of Ottawa is a surprise only to those who haven’t noticed the steady march of censorship in Canada. Canada is “a pleasantly authoritarian country,” Alan Borovoy, general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, once said. That phrase perfectly captures the cloud of mandatory niceness that hangs over Canadian culture: it is better to stifle and censor than to risk hurting anyone’s feelings particularly anyone in an official victim group.
Canada has a national speech code as well as bureaucrats and elites eager to expand it. That’s why the University of Ottawa Vice President and Provost Francois Houle thought it appropriate to warn Coulter that she might face criminal charges if her speech wasn’t nice enough: “Our domestic laws, both provincial and federal, delineate freedom of expression (or ‘free speech’) in a manner that is somewhat different than the approach taken in the United States. I therefore encourage you to educate yourself, if need be, as to what is acceptable in Canada and to do so before your planned visit here… Promoting hatred against any identifiable group would not only be considered inappropriate, but could in fact lead to criminal charges.”
It’s common enough to feel contempt for some of Coulter’s ideas. But for a university bureaucrat to threaten her with jail before a scheduled speech is a bit much, even by those low Canadian standards. And it’s worse for a university to avoid providing security, thus letting a student mob decide who speaks and who doesn’t. Sameena Topan, one of the student protesters who helped shut Coulter down, said “we accomplished what we were here to do, to ensure that we don’t have her discriminatory rhetoric on our campus.” Or , to put it more plainly, we won’t tolerate letting other people hear ideas we disagree with.

More on Censorship at Yale

A few notes on the preposterous decision by the Yale University Press to censor the Muhammad cartoons in a book it is publishing about the Muhammad cartoons, The Cartoons That Shook the World.

– In a one-line comment on the Inside Higher Ed web site, Mark Bauerlein of Emory University asks to know that names of the two dozen authorities, “including diplomats and experts on Islam and counterterrorism,” who advised the publisher not to run the cartoons. In a censorship case, we should at least know the names of the assistant censors. Or will these names be censored too?

– Where aren’t liberals speaking out? Judging by Internet commentary, protests seem to be coming almost entirely from the right. The New York Times says the Yale decision is :not all that surprising,” meaning that it’s tolerable, because Muslims around the world might riot and kill. This is a gaudy version of the heckler’s veto by people who reluctant to defend free speech.

– Why is that people making cowardly decisions so often take the opportunity to accuse themselves of bravery? “I’ve never blinked” in the face of controversial material, John Donatich, the director of the Yale University Press, bragged to the New York Times after blinking on the Muhammad cartoons. He had to do it, he said, because when it came to “blood on my hands, there was no question.” This is the same argument used in Mexico to discourage saying or doing anything about the murderous drug cartels.

– Fear may not be the sole reason for the censorship. Muslims are now a de facto oppressed group on our campuses, and thus protected from most criticism. Next week we will publish here an account by a Yale student who writes that at freshman orientation he was repeatedly hectored about society’s heavy oppression of two groups: gays and Muslims. The alleged severe repression of American Muslims is surely imaginary, but it’s considered real at Yale, and Mr. Donatich may well have noticed.

Unsustainable? No, Wilson Is Wrong

[Read John K. Wilson’s defense of Delaware ResLife here]

The University of Delaware Office of Residence Life has tricked another outsider, John K. Wilson, into believing that its proposal to run a highly politicized indoctrination program for over 7,000 students in the school’s residence halls is actually just a free exploration of diverse views in a spirit of open debate. Anyone who knows the facts on the ground knows that this is not so.
For Wilson, “The only relevant question is whether the ResLife program violates the rights of students by compelling them to participate or censoring their views. There is not even a shred of evidence that this is the case.” Not only is this dead wrong (there is plenty of evidence that students were compelled to participate and even had reports filed against them when they did not “correctly” participate), Wilson fundamentally misrepresents the proposal, last year’s program, and the critics. The problem for his argument is that the evidence for indoctrination and mandatory participation is everywhere.

The ResLife directors are the same people who did everything they could to make students aware it was mandatory, while claiming to their superiors it was not. RAs were instructed to tell students that the programming was mandatory. RAs wrote, for instance, about floor meetings, “Not to scare anyone or anything, but these are MANDATORY!” Last year’s 500 pages of documentation contain many strong assertions that every student “must” be reached with ResLife’s agenda. ResLife advertised an “every-student” model as opposed to the traditional model of residence hall programming. Can ResLife now be trusted with highly politicized educational programming in the very place where students live, socialize, do work, and sleep?

Continue reading Unsustainable? No, Wilson Is Wrong