The root of nearly every free-speech infringement on campuses across the country is that someone—almost always a liberal—has been offended or has sniffed out a potential offense in the making. Then, the silencing campaign begins. The offender must be punished, not just for justice’s sake, but also to send the message to anyone else on campus that should he or she stray off the leftist script, they too might find themselves investigated, harassed, ostracized, or even expelled. If the illiberal left can preemptively silence opposing speakers or opposing groups— such as getting a speech or event canceled, or denying campus recognition for a group—even better.
In a 2014 interview with New York magazine, comedian Chris Rock told journalist Frank Rich that he had stopped playing college campuses because of how easily the audiences were offended. Rock said he realized some time around 2006 that “This is not as much fun as it used to be” and noted George Carlin had felt the same way before he died. Rock attributed it to “Kids raised on a culture of ‘We’re not going to keep score in the game because we don’t want anybody to lose.’ Or just ignoring race to a fault. You can’t say ‘the black kid over there.’ No, it’s ‘the guy with the red shoes.’ You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.” Sadly, Rock admitted that the climate of hypersensitivity had forced him and other comedians into self-censorship.
This Orwellian climate of intimidation and fear chills free speech and thought. On college campuses it is particularly insidious. Higher education should provide an environment to test new ideas, debate theories, encounter challenging information, and figure out what one believes. Campuses should be places where students are able to make mistakes without fear of retribution. If there is no margin for error, it is impossible to receive a meaningful education.
Instead, the politically correct university is a world of land mines, where faculty and students have no idea what innocuous comment might be seen as an offense. In December 2014, the president of Smith College, Kathleen McCartney, sent an email to the student body in the wake of the outcry over two different grand juries failing to indict police officers who killed African-American men. The subject heading read “All Lives Matter” and the email opened with, “As members of the Smith community we are struggling, and we are hurting.” She wrote, “We raise our voices in protest.” She outlined campus actions that would be taken to “heal those in pain” and to “teach, learn and share what we know” and to “work for equity and justice.”
Shortly thereafter, McCartney sent another email. This one was to apologize for the first. What had she done? She explained she had been informed by students “the phrase/hashtag ‘all lives matter’ has been used by some to draw attention away from the focus on institutional violence against black people.” She quoted two students, one of whom said, “The black students at this school deserve to have their specific struggles and pain recognized, not dissolved into the larger student body.” The Daily Hampshire Gazette reported that a Smith sophomore complained that by writing “All Lives Matter,” “It felt like [McCartney] was invalidating the experience of black lives.” Another Smith sophomore told the Gazette, “A lot of my news feed was negative remarks about her as a person.” In her apology email McCartney closed by affirming her commitment to “working as a white ally.”
McCartney clearly was trying to support the students and was sympathetic to their concerns and issues. Despite the best of intentions, she caused grievous offense. The result of a simple mistake was personal condemnation by students. If nefarious motives are imputed in this situation, it’s not hard to extrapolate what would, and does, happen to actual critics who are not obsequiously affirming the illiberal left.
In an article in the Atlantic, Wendy Kaminer—a lawyer and free-speech advocate—declared, “Academic freedom is declining. The belief that free speech rights don’t include the right to speak offensively is now firmly entrenched on campuses and enforced by repressive speech or harassment codes. Campus censors don’t generally riot in response to presumptively offensive speech, but they do steal newspapers containing articles they don’t like, vandalize displays they find offensive, and disrupt speeches they’d rather not hear. They insist that hate speech isn’t free speech and that people who indulge in it should be punished. No one should be surprised when a professor at an elite university calls for the arrest of ‘Sam Bacile’ [who made the YouTube video The Innocence of Muslims] while simultaneously claiming to value the First Amendment.”
On today’s campuses, left-leaning administrators, professors, and students are working overtime in their campaign of silencing dissent, and their unofficial tactics of ostracizing, smearing, and humiliation are highly effective. But what is even more chilling—and more far reaching—is the official power they abuse to ensure the silencing of views they don’t like. They’ve invented a labyrinth of anti-free speech tools that include “speech codes,” “free speech zones,” censorship, investigations by campus “diversity and tolerance offices,” and denial of due process. They craft “anti-harassment policies” and “anti-violence policies” that are speech codes in disguise. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s (FIRE) 2014 report on campus free speech, “Spotlight on Speech Codes,” close to 60 percent of the four hundred–plus colleges they surveyed “seriously infringe upon the free speech rights of students.” Only 16 of the schools reviewed in 2014 had no policies restricting protected speech. Their 2015 report found that of the 437 schools they surveyed, “more than 55 percent maintain severely restrictive, ‘red light’ speech codes—policies that clearly and substantially prohibit protected speech.” FIRE’s Greg Lukianoff attributed the slight drop to outside pressure from free-speech groups and lawsuits.
For many Americans the term “speech code” sends shivers up the spine. Yet these noxious and un-American codes have become commonplace on college campuses across the United States. They are typically so broad that they could include literally anything and are subject to the interpretation of school administrators, who frequently fail to operate as honest brokers. In the hands of the illiberal left, the speech codes are weapons to silence anyone—professors, students, visiting speakers—who expresses a view that deviates from the left’s worldview or ideology. Speech that offends them is redefined as “harassment” or “hate speech” both of which are barred by most campus speech codes. At Colorado College, a private liberal arts college, administrators invented a “violence” policy that was used to punish non-violent speech. The consequences of violating a speech code are serious: it can often lead to public shaming, censoring, firings, suspensions, or expulsions, often with no due process.
Many of the incidents sound too absurd to be true. But true they are. Consider, for example, how Yale University put the kibosh on its Freshman Class Council’s T-shirt designed for the Yale-Harvard football game. The problem? The shirt quoted F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line from This Side of Paradise, that, “I think of all Harvard men as sissies.” The word “sissy” was deemed offensive to gay people. Or how about the Brandeis professor who was found guilty of racial harassment—with no formal hearing—for explaining, indeed criticizing, the word “wetbacks.” Simply saying the word was crime enough. Another professor, this time at the University of Central Florida, was suspended for making a joke in class equating his tough exam questions to a “killing spree.” A student reported the joke to the school’s administration. The professor promptly received a letter suspending him from teaching and banning him from campus. He was reinstated after the case went public.
The vaguely worded campus speech codes proliferating across the country turn every person with the ability to exercise his or her vocal cords into an offender in the making. New York University prohibits “insulting, teasing, mocking, degrading or ridiculing another person or group.” The College of the Holy Cross prohibits speech “causing emotional injury through careless or reckless behavior.” The University of Connecticut issued a “Policy Statement on Harassment” that bans “actions that intimidate, humiliate, or demean persons or groups, or that undermine their security or self-esteem.” Virginia State University’s 2012–13 student handbook bars students from “offend[ing] ... a member of the University community.” But who decides what’s “offensive”? The illiberal left, of course.
The list goes on and on. The University of Wisconsin-Stout at one point had an Information Technology policy prohibiting the distribution of messages that included offensive comments about a list of attributes including hair color. Fordham University’s policy prohibited using email to “insult.” It gets worse: Lafayette College—a private university—instituted a “Bias Response Team” which exists to “respond to acts of intolerance.” A “bias-related incident” was “any incident in which an action taken by a person or group is perceived to be malicious ... toward another person or group.” Is it really wise to have a policy that depends on the perception of offense by college-aged students? Other schools have bias-reporting programs encouraging students to report incidents.
Speech codes create a chilling environment where all it takes is one accusation, true or not, to ruin someone’s academic career. The intent or reputation or integrity of the accused is of little import. If someone “perceives” you have said or acted in a racist way, then the bar for guilt has been met. If a person claims you caused them “harm” by saying something that offended them, case closed.
In November 2013, more than two dozen graduate students at UCLA entered the classroom of their professor and announced a protest against a “hostile and unsafe climate for Scholars of Color.” The students had been the victims of racial “microaggression,” a term invented in the 1970s that has been recently repurposed as a silencing tactic. A common definition cited is that racial microaggressions “are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults towards people of color.” Like all these new categories, literally anything can be a microaggression.
So what were the racial microaggressions that spawned the interruption of a class at the University of California at Los Angeles? One student alleged that when the professor changed her capitalization of the word “indigenous” to lowercase he was disrespecting her ideological point of view. Another proof point of racial animus was the professor’s insistence that the students use the Chicago Manual of Style for citation format (the protesting students preferred the less formal American Psychological Association manual). After trying to speak with one male student from his class, the kindly 79-year-old professor was accused of battery for reaching out to touch him. The professor, Val Rust, a widely respected scholar in the field of comparative education, was hung out to dry by the UCLA administration, which treated a professor’s stylistic changes to student papers as a racist attack. The school instructed Rust to stay off the Graduate School of Education and Information Services for one year. In response to the various incidents, UCLA also commissioned an “Independent Investigative Report on Acts of Bias and Discrimination Involving Faculty at the University of California, Los Angeles.” The report recommended investigations, saying that “investigations might deter those who would engage in such conduct, even if their actions would likely not constitute a violation of university policy.”