'Missoulian' Response Illustrates Potential Repercussions of May 9 'Blueprint'
July 8, 2013
by Susan Kruth
Cindy Weese and Kelsen Young wrote in a June 25 column for the Missoulian that, contrary to George Will’s arguments in his May 28 column, the Departments of Education and Justice’s May 9 “blueprint” for campus sexual harassment policies does not pose any danger to speech protected by the First Amendment. On Wednesday, reader Jeffrey Rentz wrote a thoughtful letter to the Missoulian in response, explaining how the blueprint could be used to censor professors who teach literature with sexual themes:
[Y]ears ago one of our English Literature professors used a zucchini creatively to illustrate the bawdy nature of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It was, needless to say, hilarious. But if it is unwelcome for one student, it falls within the DOJ definition. When professors are teaching materials at the margin, they have three choices. Plunge ahead and take the risk; seek permission (which means that the University administration takes the risk) or the easiest path — self-censorship. Self-censorship is safe and easy and the language of the DOJ agreement that encourages self-censorship violates free speech.
Rentz’s point is an important one—restrictions on speech must be narrowly and clearly defined so that they do not chill protected expression. Otherwise, the unfettered debate that should take place on college campuses will be stifled by students’ and professors’ fear of punishment.