Higher Education

Ray Nosthstine | January 9, 2009

Speech Codes Limit Campus Freedom

Ray Nosthstine

Millions of high school seniors have started the process of deciding which college or university to attend in the next academic year. And while many students will look at schools that reflect their interests and values, virtually none will be thinking about the school's speech codes or free speech zones. They should.

Students at colleges and universities who articulate conservative and traditional views are at particular risk of bullying and indoctrination by campus administrators and faculty who are zealous ideologues.

On college campuses during the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was the students who embodied campus radicalism. Today some administrators practice a brand of radicalism intent on punishing students who dissent from the ideology of the campus power structure.

In their book The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses, authors Alan Charles Kors and Harvey A. Silverglate declare, "In a nation whose future depends upon an education in freedom, colleges and universities are teaching the values of censorship, self-censorship, and self-righteous abuse of power."

Limits on free speech are uniquely troubling for the future health of a free society. Students become accustomed to having their rights limited, and will be more lethargic in countering possible oppression from a growing and intrusive state.

OU, OSU Censor Student Speech

The Speech Code Rating System, a project of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), reflects FIRE's view of the degree to which free speech is curtailed at a particular institution of higher learning.

Both the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University have a red-light rating for censoring student speech. A "red light" institution has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has created a list of speech codes from several universities, some of which were later modified thanks to FIRE's own efforts. The University of Connecticut, for example, outlawed "inconsiderate jokes," "stereotyping," and even "inappropriately directed laughter." Some schools put limits on any words that result in a loss of "self esteem" or cause "embarrassment" or "psychological discomfort."

Perhaps none are as striking as the University of Delaware's 2007 "Diversity Facilitation Training," where resident advisers were trained with definitions that described racist as applying "to all white people (i.e., people of European descent) living in the United States, regardless of class gender, religion, culture, or sexuality," and reverse racism as "a term created and used by white people to deny their white privilege."

Resident advisers after their training then peppered new students with questions like "When did you discover your sexuality?" In one training session students were called upon to announce their views on same-sex marriage, and pressured to alter their position if it fell outside the political orthodoxy of the overseers. Thanks to FIRE, the school was forced to amend much of the social engineering heaped on students.

Just two months ago at the University of Mississippi, the campus newspaper The Daily Mississippian reported that the University Police interrupted a staged reading of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago. It was suggested that the readings be moved to a free speech zone, or what the university calls "speakers' corners." An English instructor named Griffith Brownlee replied by reading the First Amendment and saying, "The whole country is a free speech zone." Once the university found out it was a department-sanctioned event, they called the whole affair "a misunderstanding." As Brownlee herself pointed out in the article, one suspects the irony was lost on school officials that they had attempted to limit the words of an author who wrote against totalitarian tactics.

Students and faculty, especially at public institutions, should not have to face punishment or have their liberties stifled due to expressing their beliefs. The ability to dissent, to be fully shaped by one's own moral ethic and traditions, is the very fabric of our free society. To sacrifice or compromise these principles to political correctness, indoctrination, and social reprogramming is not in the spirit of academic excellence and a flourishing and free society.

Furthermore, this is a principle-regardless of political persuasion-that rational, freedom-loving people can all defend. It would be wise to remember the words of another dissenter, Martin Luther King, Jr., who wrote in his famed "Letter from Birmingham Jail" that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

Ray Nothstine (M.Div., Asbury Theological Seminary) is an associate editor at the Acton Institute.

Ray Nosthstine

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