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:
- A nightmare re-education program at the University of Delaware.
- A student found guilty of harassment for publicly reading a book.
- A student summarily expelled for a protest collage.
- A professor found guilty of racial harassment — without so much as a hearing — for explaining the origin of a racial epithet.
- A school finding a student publication guilty of racial harassment (misuse of “harassment” is a common theme) for publishing unflattering, yet verifiable, statements about radical Islam.
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.