May 23, 2003
Campus speech codes sacrifice academic freedom in a misguided effort to prevent hurt feelings
The Boston Phoenix
Looking for a place where you get clean hallways and an untroubled emotional life, but also severe restrictions on "collective expressions of opinion," as well as on what you can think and how you may express it? Then you might want to enroll at Shippensburg, where the Student Code of Conduct declares that a "clean, wellmaintained" environment and freedom from "emotional abuse" are "primary rights" that take priority over the "secondary right" to "express a personal belief system."
At first glance, the code seems like it was written for a drug-treatment center, or even a psychiatric hospital complete with "quiet rooms" and other soothing facilities for the severely disturbed. But Shippensburg is a real university — and while its speech code is more frank than many others, its elevation of student comfort over intellectual and academic freedom is characteristic of college campuses nationwide.
At Shippensburg, "collective expressions of opinion" are restricted to two locations on campus near the science library. Holding a rally, teach-in, or other "collective expression" anywhere else subjects students to disciplinary action. Within the residence halls, it is verboten to post anything on the walls that "can be interpreted as ... promoting discrimination of others" on the basis of a long list of attributes, including age, "lifestyles," and "political characteristics." And in private conversations, community members are specifically warned not to use "presumptive statements" or "discriminatory semantics" that reflect their "unconscious attitudes toward individuals." (This brings to mind a witticism attributed to the French Revolutionary figure Talleyrand. Asked late in his life how he had managed to survive so many violent regime changes, the wily politician replied that he had learned early on that words are meant to cover up one’s true feelings rather than to express them.)
The student handbook says that Shippensburg values the "freedoms necessary for the pursuit of knowledge and truth," but baldly asserts that the university will protect these freedoms only if they are exercised in a manner that is "not inflammatory, demeaning, or harmful to others." In other words, feel free to say what you really believe, as long as it does not upset anybody.
Most legal scholars — even those who support restrictions on racist or sexist speech — would probably agree that the resulting scorched-earth approach to the Constitution went too far. Shippensburg’s refusal to protect the search for truth or the unfettered expression of one’s views undermines the very foundation of a university’s purpose, curtailing honest discussion in the areas where it is most needed and denying the university’s core mission of intellectual exploration. Many colleges and universities today try to dress up such codes by defining unwelcome speech as "harassment," but the disguise does not work very well. Shippensburg’s code happens to be one of the nation’s worst, but it shares many characteristics with codes found elsewhere.
This "civil rights vs. civil liberties" paradigm rests on the belief that when a person feels discomfort as a result of exposure to racist, sexist, homophobic, or other unpleasant words and ideas, such discomfort is, in and of itself, a civil-rights injury equivalent to being turned away from the lunch counter for being black, denied a job for being a woman, or beaten up for being gay. In this view, emotional discomfort is the essential element of a civil-rights injury. Thus, students have a right not to be offended or hurt by exposure to ideas that could diminish their feelings of self-esteem; they are — as a matter of civil rights — entitled to a comfortable and "safe" emotional environment free of such ideas.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with a university striving to create a comfortable environment — emotional or otherwise — for its students. After all, universities provide all kinds of amenities and services to make their students feel comfortable: late-night dining halls, cable TV, student social spaces, and so on. However, such comforts are just that — comforts — and their provision should not lead us to confuse niceties with real civil rights: important protections from violence, brute threats of force, intimidation, racial discrimination, and the like. The mere fact that ideas can sometimes make people uncomfortable does not grant anyone a right not to have their feelings hurt.
Harvey Silverglate, co-author of The Shadow University and co-founder of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), is a frequent Phoenix contributor. Carl Takei is a program officer for FIRE.
- Speech Pathology, PDF, 70.6 KB , The Boston Phoenix