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Free inquiry? Not on campus

January 11, 2007

Remember when the Right had a near-monopoly on censorship? If so, you must be in your sixties, or older. Now the champions of censorship are mostly on the left. And they are thickest on the ground in our colleges and universities. Since the late 1980s, what should be the most open, debate-driven, and tolerant sector of society has been in thrall to the diversity and political correctness that now form the aggressive secular religion of America’s elites.

The censors have only grown in power, elevating antidiscrimination rules above “absolutist” free-speech principles, silencing dissent with antiharassment policies, and looking away when students bar or disrupt conservative speakers or steal conservative newspapers. Operating under the tacit principle that “error has no rights,” an ancient Catholic theological rule, the new censors aren’t interested in debates or open forums. They want to shut up dissenters.

In October, for instance, a student mob stormed a Columbia University stage, shutting down speeches by two members of the Minutemen, an anti-illegal-immigration group. The students shouted: “They have no right to speak!” Campus opponents of Congressman Tom Tancredo, an illegal-immigration foe, set off fire alarms at Georgetown to disrupt his planned speech, and their counterparts at Michigan State roughed up his student backers. Conservative activist David Horowitz, black conservative columnist Star Parker, and Daniel Pipes, an outspoken critic of Islamism, frequently find themselves shouted down or disrupted on campus.

School officials seem to have little more interest in free speech. At Columbia this fall, officials turned away most of a large crowd gathered to hear former PLO terrorist-turned-anti-jihadist Walid Shoebat, citing security worries. Only Columbia students and 20 guests got in. Colleges often cite the danger of violence as they cancel controversial speeches—a new form of heckler’s veto: shrinking an audience so that an event will seem unimportant is itself a way to cave to critics. In 2003, Columbia, facing leftist fury at the scheduled speeches of several conservatives (myself included), banned scores of invited nonstudents who had agreed to attend. Though some schools cancel left-wing speakers, too—including Ward Churchill and Michael Moore, or abortion-supporters Anna Quindlen and Christie Whitman at Catholic universities—right-of-center speakers are the campus speech cops’ normal targets.

Official censorship—now renamed speech codes and antiharassment codes—pervades the campuses. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) recently surveyed more than 300 schools, including the top universities and liberal arts colleges, and found that over 68 percent explicitly prohibit speech that the First Amendment would protect if uttered off campus. At 229 schools, FIRE found clear and substantial restriction of speech, while 91 more had policies that one could interpret as restricting speech. Only eight permitted genuine free expression.

A 2002 New York Times article reported that today’s college kids seem more guarded in their views than previous generations of students. The writer suggested several possible explanations—disgust with partisan politics and uncivil debates on cable news shows, perhaps, or simple politeness. A more likely reason is that universities have made honest disagreement dangerous, making students fearful of saying what they think.

Much campus censorship rests on philosophical underpinnings that go back to social theorist Herbert Marcuse, a hero to sixties radicals. Marcuse argued that traditional tolerance is repressive—it wards off reform by making the status quo . . . well, tolerable. Marcuse favored intolerance of established and conservative views, with tolerance offered only to the opinions of the oppressed, radicals, subversives, and other outsiders. Indoctrination of students and “deeply pervasive” censorship of others would be necessary, starting on the campuses and fanning out from there.

By the late 1980s, many of the double standards that Marcuse called for were in place in academe. Marcuse’s candor was missing, but everyone knew that speakers, student newspapers, and professors on the right could (make thatshould) receive different treatment from those on the left. The officially oppressed—designated race and gender groups—knew that they weren’t subject to the standards and rules set for other students.

Marcuse’s thinking has influenced a generation of influential radical scholars. They included Mari Matsuda, who followed Marcuse by arguing that complete free speech should belong mainly to the powerless; and Catharine MacKinnon, a pioneer of modern sexual harassment and “hostile environment” doctrine. In MacKinnon’s hands, sexual harassment became a form of gender-based class discrimination and inegalitarian speech a kind of harmful action.

Confusing speech and action has a long pedigree on the PC campus. At the time of the first wave of speech codes 20 years ago, Kenneth Lasson, a law professor at the University of Baltimore, argued that “racial defamation does not merely ‘preach hate’; it is the practice of hatred by the speaker”—and is thus punishable as a form of assault. Indeed, the Left has evolved a whole new vocabulary to blur the line between acts and speech: “verbal conduct” and “expressive behavior” (speech), “non-traditional violence” (Lani Guinier’s term for strong criticism), and “anti-feminist intellectual harassment” (rolling one’s eyeballs over feminist dogma).

Campus censors frequently emulate the Marcusian double standard by combining effusive praise for free speech with an eagerness to suppress unwelcome views. “I often have to struggle with right and wrong because I am a strong believer in free speech,” said Ronni Santo, a gay student activist at UCLA in the late nineties. “Opinions are protected under the First Amendment, but when negative opinions come out of a person’s fist, mouth, or pen to intentionally hurt others, that’s when their opinions should no longer be protected.”

In their 1993 book, The Shadow University, Alan Charles Kors and Harvey Silverglate turned some of the early speech codes into national laughingstocks. Among the banned comments and action they listed: “intentionally producing psychological discomfort” (University of North Dakota), “insensitivity to the experience of women” (University of Minnesota), and “inconsiderate jokes” (University of Connecticut). Serious nonverbal offenses included “inappropriate laughter” (Sarah Lawrence College), “eye contact or the lack of it” (Michigan State University), and “subtle discrimination,” such as “licking lips or teeth; holding food provocatively” (University of Maryland). Later gems, added well after the courts struck down campus codes as overly broad, included bans on “inappropriate non-verbals” (Macalaster College), “communication with sexual overtones” (Lincoln University), and “discussing sexual activities” (State University of New York–Brockport). Other codes bar any comment or gesture that “annoys,” “offends,” or otherwise makes someone feel bad. Tufts ruled that attributing harassment complaints to the “hypersensitivity of others who feel hurt” is itself harassment.

Brockport, which banned “cartoons that depict religious figures in compromising situations,” “jokes making fun of any protected group,” and “calling someone an old hag,” helpfully described for students what does notconstitute sexual harassment: “non-coercive interaction(s) . . . that are acceptable to both parties.” Commented Greg Lukianoff of FIRE: “The wonder is that anyone would risk speaking at all at SUNY Brockport.”

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