Speech Codes Limit Campus Freedom

Millions of high school seniors have started the process of deciding which colleges or universities to attend in the next academic year. Prospective students will take into consideration cost, academics, social life, and location. And while many students will also 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. At colleges and universities, students 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 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. Perhaps even worse, some students might be unaware that their rights have been violated because they often lack the critical thinking skills needed to challenge punishment and oppression. Educational systems where students are encouraged to memorize and regurgitate information have not properly prepared them for healthy and constructive dissent.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), has cited a list of speech codes from several universities, some later modified thanks to FIRE’s own efforts. The University of Connecticut outlawed “inconsiderate jokes,” “stereotyping,” and even “inappropriate directed laughter.” Some schools put limits on speech using 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.” After their training, Resident Advisers peppered new students with questions like “When did you discover your sexuality?,” and in one training session students were called upon to announce their views on same sex marriage, and pressured to alter their positions if they fell outside the political orthodoxy of the overseers.

These examples are just a smidgen of the outlandish practices performed by the Office of Residential Life at the University of Delaware for the purpose of reeducating incoming freshmen. Overseers of this indoctrination actually called the program a form of “treatment” for students. Thanks to FIRE, the school was forced to amend much of the social engineering heaped on students.

Actions like these are unsurprising to those who stand against indoctrination and coercion, and support freedom of speech on campuses. Christians too are often a favorite prey of campus overseers. But completely lost on administrators is the fact that Christians and those who profess faith in other established religions already teach fairness, respect, and dignity to those who may be marginalized because of disability, race, or socio-economic background.

Just last month at the University of Mississippi, the campus newspaper The Daily Mississippian reported that the University Police interrupted a staged reading of Alexandr 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 of attempting to limit the words of an author who wrote against totalitarian tactics was lost on some school officials.

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.”

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  • Warren Jewell

    So, “zealous ideologues” – even those hungry and thirsty for truth find themselves in something of euphemistic-ism. My earthy background has a few names for them, unfit for print. To me, they are beasts who insist on burdening others with their baggage. Meanwhile, they and their students are culturally illiterate and densely ignorant of historical perspectives – just WHAT are they teaching?

    Yet, I can relate to ‘schooling’ that just didn’t quite do the job – is our Catholic catechesis much better than our current failure of general liberal arts? My late wife Sharon and I had to take Bible study with Protestant Bible-belters, so little was available in the Church some thirty-five-plus years ago; our own devout pastor, our beloved Father Vita sent us to the Protestants! You can see the ‘Protestant edge’ on Scripture in the illustrious likes of converts like Mark Shea. Oddly, the Bible study among those worthy Protestant folk, who sang like the angels between study sessions, was to make us more devoted Catholics. WE understood the powerful Eucharistic truths of John 6 and 1 Corinthians 11 – so sad they did not.

    So, of catechesis, Bible study and even liberal arts, I am self-educated, by and large. It is difficult having no one (for the last twenty-six years) to discuss things with – so many have NO interest in any of those subjects. My questions must be answered in my own further study – praise God for the Internet and orthodox and quality authors – but that just increases the depth of my knowledge, understanding, discernment and other fine qualities – still working on those, and wisdom, patience, etc., as real virtues in me.Went to one semester in college and found it dreadful – a Marxist ‘English language’ instructor, as if English can only be understood in collectivist terms. One instructor talked to walls instead of us in the large auditorium style classroom. Maybe a quarter of his lecture was heard. (Hey! He was ‘tenured’, which is an academic get-out-of-work card.)

    My daughter, Helena, found herself re-teaching classes – informal, uncompensated tutoring – to struggling fellow students – and SHE was supposed to pay the school? Before entering her junior year, she found she preferred a job permitting her to be stay-at-home Mom, anyway.

    I will say this – I applied myself in my work, in computer software systems, to end my career at a six-figure income. Can that be done now? I guess maybe not, since college grads ‘certify’ their one sheepskins by hiring other college grads, even as most jobs are not that complex, and akin to neither medical surgery nor astronomical physics.

    Then again, does one need a college degree to become entrepreneurial? That may be the real wave of the future – building and re-building one’s working way to have income on his or her own terms – or, at least on no worse terms than customer satisfaction.

    (I’m rambling) – Onward, Christians, to orthodox Catholic colleges, where real education still has hold. (AND, vocations are heard better . . 🙂

  • fishman

    Honestly this is a natural function of a university.
    Universities were meant as a vessel for spiritual formation. The only objection I can see in the article is what the students are being formed too.

    Would the author object to preventing the performance of the V-dialogs. Or letting the local gay pride group have a gay pride parade on campus? How about a public reading of penthouse magazine. Some speech is harmful. The problem with censorship on a federal level is it is not possible to choose good sensors. For a smaller group, like a college the faculty are exactly that de-facto. However, here comes the state and the idea of ‘separation of church and state’. Something that works well from a federal level but is an abysmal failure from an education level. There can be no education with out a foundation in philosophy. The problem is in public institution the only philosophy accepted are the ones put forth by people who lie and claim they don’t have one.