September 11, 2013

THROWDOWN THURSDAY: A Disturbing Trend Toward Campus Censorship

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Are American free speech norms too permissive of offensive and hateful speech? Many university administrators and professors seem to think so. Over the past few decades, they have launched dangerous new campaigns at schools across the country to limit the extent of free speech on campus.

Examples are easy to find, but difficult to stomach. Western Michigan University prohibited students from holding “condescending sex-based attitudes.” The University of Delaware banned “teasing” and “ridiculing.” California State University at Chico prohibited students from using “generic masculine terms … to refer to people of both sexes,” literally prohibiting students from using the term “guys” to get the attention of a group of friends. And Drexel University’s speech code proscribed — if you can believe it — “inappropriately directed laughter” and “inconsiderate jokes.” One might as well require students to “play nice with others.”

When universities act in furtherance of these policies, the results are predictably disastrous.  At Bucknell University, students were prohibited from holding an “affirmative action bake sale” to protest the use of racial preferences in admissions policy.  Tufts University students were found guilty of “harassment” when they accurately published certain passages from the Quran. At New York University, students were successfully pressured into not displaying the Danish cartoons of Mohammad that ignited worldwide protest nearly a decade ago.

Our University is no stranger to this fight. Just a few years ago, the Student Assembly adopted “Resolution 6” after an article in the Cornell Review criticized “angry minorities” who are too quick to “complain about discrimination from whitey.”  While students rightly condemned the unsubstantiated arguments and insensitive terms contained within the article, the Assembly went further, urging a revision to the Campus Code of Conduct to “prevent future hateful terminology.” Ironically, the Assembly used Cornell’s “Open Doors, Open Hearts, Open Minds” Statement on Diversity, which purports to nurture minorities, to suppress ideas deemed hostile by a majority of the campus.  Thankfully, President David Skorton decided to intervene to defend the principle that “the antidote to offensive speech … is more speech, not less speech” in an article in The Sun.  Still, it is disappointing how hollow the ubiquitous rhetoric surrounding diversity rings when it is intellectual diversity that is on the chopping block. To this day, Cornell prohibits making “bias-motivated jokes or statements” that create an “offensive environment” — criteria subjective enough to prohibit speech on key issues such as affirmative action or immigration.

What lies at the heart of this dispute over free speech on campus?  In my view, it is fundamentally about what role a university ought to play in the ideological development of its student body.  Should universities be places that encourage the free exchange of ideas — places that allow students to pursue truth, wherever it might lead them? Or should universities seek to inculcate their student bodies with a predetermined truth and defend, on behalf of students, a “right not to be offended” by speech that contradicts those prepackaged ideas?

Proponents of the latter view seem to see themselves as protectors of the student body. They seek to keep us safe from material that could hurt our feelings or cause tension between different groups in the Cornell community. Indeed, nearly all Western liberal democracies allow content-based restrictions on speech deemed “hateful” or “belittling.” Whether at the national level or the university level, however, these restrictions do serious harm to a key purpose of having the freedom of speech to begin with.

That purpose is to allow robust debate on matters of public concern. Through discussions with our fellow citizens, we hope to be able to come up with the optimal solution to problems we all face.  Free speech enables us to pursue truth without having to worry that we will be punished because our beliefs conflict with the interests of the powerful or with notions that most of society considers sacrosanct.  When speech can be restricted simply because someone takes offense, everyone loses:  The censored student loses the ability to speak, the campus community loses the ability to listen and the aggrieved students lose the ability to reconsider (or reinforce) a perspective that they hold near and dear through a clash with the offensive opinion.

As Chief Justice Roberts, said in Snyder v. Phelps, upholding the Westboro Baptist Church’s right to engage in sinister, vile protests against military families:

“Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a nation we have chosen a different course — to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”

If our Supreme Court sees fit to protect the First Amendment rights of those who protest against the very people who defend those rights overseas, then surely we can take the smaller step of keeping our universities out of the business of regulating offensiveness.

Julius Kairey is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected] Always Right appears alternate Thursdays this semester.