Free inquiry? Not on campus
January 31, 2007
by John Leo
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 that should) 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 not constitute 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.”
Despite numerous court decisions overturning these codes, they have proliferated. College officials point to the hurt feelings of women or minorities as evidence that a violation must have occurred, in part because they want to avoid charges of racism, sexism, and homophobia— an overriding fear in today’s academe, where diversity offices can swarm with 40 or 50 administrators. The Clinton administration’s commissioner of civil rights in the Department of Education, Norma Cantú, reinforced this trend by interpreting racial and sexual harassment broadly, with an implied threat to withhold federal funds if universities didn’t vigorously counter it. In 2003, the DOE office of civil rights issued a weary clarification, explaining to universities that harassment doesn’t mean merely feeling offended. The letter has had little effect on the censoring fervor of the campuses, however. Occidental College officials soon found a student radio shock jock guilty of sexual harassment for using various crude terms on the air, calling one student a “bearded feminist” and another “half man, half vagina.” On many a campus, tastelessness equals harassment.
Georgia Tech went so far as to ban “denigrating” comments on “beliefs,” which would make almost any passionate argument over ideas a violation. Needless to say, the targets here are usually conservative. Ohio State University at Mansfield launched a sexual harassment investigation of a research librarian, Scott Savage, for recommending the inclusion of four conservative books, including popular works by David Horowitz and ex-senator Rick Santorum, on a freshman reading list. Two professors had complained that one of the books, The Marketing of Evil, by journalist David Kupelian, was “homophobic tripe” and “hate literature.” This may have been the first time that a campus charged that a book recommendation qualified as sexual harassment. After a burst of publicity and a threat to sue, the university dropped the investigation.
Student censors regularly spirit away whole print runs of conservative student newspapers, almost always without reproof from administrators. Over the years, campus officials, including a few university presidents, have even encouraged such stealing. After repeated thefts of the Dartmouth Review, an official egged on the thieves by calling the paper “litter” and “abandoned property.” In a commencement speech, former Cornell president Hunter Rawlings III praised students who seized and burned copies of the conservative Cornell Review in retaliation for printing a gross parody of Ebonics.
Once in a blue moon, a college president vigorously defends free speech. At Northern Kentucky University, president James Votruba rebuked and suspended a tenured feminist professor, Sally Jacobsen, who led a group that demolished a campus-approved right-to-life display. Jacobsen cited two justifications: her deep feelings and her alleged free-speech right to tear down displays that offend her. “I did invite students to express their freedom of speech rights to destroy the display if they wished,” she said. “Any violence perpetrated against that silly display was minor compared to how I felt when I saw it.”
But far more typical than Votruba was Washington State University president V. Lane Rawlins, who hailed the disruption—and subsequent cancellation—of an intentionally offensive student play that irritated blacks, Christians, Jews, gays, and others. Rawlins defended the disrupters, saying that they had “exercised their rights of free speech in a very responsible manner.” Later documents showed that the university had actually organized and financed them. In the real world, such a revelation would have cost Rawlins his job. But on today’s campus, it passes without comment, in part because students can point out, with perfect moral justification, that forcing the cancellation of speeches and stealing newspapers are just logical extensions of campus speech codes.
Nothing makes the campus censors angrier than someone who dares to question race and gender preferences, especially if he uses satire to do it. That’s why the anti-affirmative-action bake sales that conservative students have sponsored at many schools—white male customers can buy cookies for $1, with lower prices for women and various minorities—have provoked such ferocious responses from campus authorities.
Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, provides a typical example. A Republican club there staged a bake sale, and several students then said that they felt offended. This amounted to a powerful argument, since hurt feelings are trump cards in the contemporary campus culture. (At the University of Wisconsin, for example, a black student testified in defense of the faculty speech code, complaining bitterly that a professor had used the word “niggardly” while teaching Chaucer. “I was in tears,” she said. “It’s not up to the rest of the class to decide whether my feelings are valid.”)
Next came the usual administrative scramble to suppress free speech while expressing great respect for it. The university charged the club with a violation of the student code and threatened sanctions. The students folded under administrative pressure and apologized. When the Republican club president refused to back down, club members asked him to resign, and he did. The students’ retreat was understandable, if not very courageous. The university in effect was trying them for bias, with the likelihood that a notation of racism would become part of their academic record and follow them to post-college job interviews.
The College Republicans at Northeastern Illinois University canceled an announced affirmative-action bake sale after the administration threatened punishment. Dean of students Michael Kelly announced that the cookie sellers would be violating university rules and that “any disruption of university activities that would be caused by this event is also actionable.” This principle—politically incorrect speakers are responsible for attacks on them by students who resent their speech—is dear to campus censors’ hearts. The university didn’t view itself as engaging in censorship—and double-standard censorship at that, since it freely allowed a satirical wage-gap bake sale run by feminists. Absurdly, Kelly said that the affirmative-action sale would be fine—if cookie prices were the same for whites, minorities, and women. Other administrators complained that differential pricing of baked goods is unfair, thus unwittingly proving the whole point of the parody.
Schools will use almost any tactic to shut the bake sales down. At the University of Washington, the administration said that the sponsor had failed to get a food permit. At Grand Valley, the university counsel argued that the sale of a single cupcake would convert political commentary into forbidden campus commerce. At Texas A&M, the athletics director argued that a satirical bake sale would damage the sports teams by making it harder to recruit minorities.
One of the PC campus’s worst excesses in suppressing unwanted speech is the drive by gays and their allies to banish or break Christian groups for their traditional beliefs on sexuality. Some 20 campuses have acted to de-recognize or de-fund religious groups that oppose homosexuality (as well as nonmarital sex), often accusing them of violating antidiscrimination rules—that is, refusing to let gays be members, or allowing them to belong but not serve as officers. The language of many policies would require a Democratic club to accept a Republican president, a Jewish group to allow a Holocaust-denying member, or a Muslim organization to accept a leader who practices voodoo.
About half of the attempts to move against Christian clubs have failed. The University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill dropped its move against a Christian club three days after getting a friendly warning letter from FIRE. “UNC couldn’t defend in public what it was willing to do in private,” said FIRE president Alan Charles Kors. “If an evangelical Christian who believed homosexuality to be a sin tried to become president of a university’s Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Alliance, the administration would have led candlelight vigils on behalf of diversity and free association.”
Such Marcusian double standards—freedom for me, but not for thee—now have a beachhead in the law, thanks to the legendarily left-wing Ninth Circuit. In response to a “Day of Silence” sponsored by the Gay-Straight Alliance at his Poway, California, high school, Tyler Harper wore a shirt that proclaimed, on the front, “Be Ashamed, Our School Embraced What God Has Condemned,” and on the back, “Homosexuality Is Shameful/Romans 1:27.” The school principal ordered Harper to take off the shirt. Harper refused, and sued. He argued that the purpose of the “Day of Silence” was to “endorse, promote and encourage homosexual activity” and that he had a First Amendment right to use his T-shirt message as a rebuttal.
When the Poway case reached the Ninth Circuit, Judge Stephen Reinhardt and his colleague Judge Sidney R. Thomas argued in a two-to-one decision that it is permissible to exclude T-shirt messages from First Amendment protection if they strike at a “core identifying characteristic of students on the basis of their membership as a minority group”—with minority status conveyed by categories “such as race, religion, and sexual orientation.” This ruling, unless the Supreme Court takes it up and overturns it, creates a large new category of viewpoints that the First Amendment doesn’t safeguard, at least within the Ninth Circuit. Based on the loose language—“such as” could apply to numerous groups—criticism of illegal aliens might now lack First Amendment protection, says UCLA law prof Eugene Volokh.
Presumably, too, one can no longer criticize any minority religious opinion, such as the Islamic view that cartoons mocking Mohammed are out-of-bounds. But pictures of Christ in urine would be perfectly fine, since Christianity remains America’s majority faith.
Some on the left applaud such Marcusian hairsplitting, arguing that First Amendment “absolutists” must learn to “balance” free speech and special protections for vulnerable groups. But in dissent, Judge Alex Kozinski expressed “considerable difficulty understanding the source and sweep of the novel doctrine the majority announces today”—nothing in state, federal, or common law supports it, he noted.
To understand the rising disrespect for free expression in the U.S., Kozinski might have been better off looking to Canada and Europe, both a bit ahead of us—if that’s the right phrase—in embracing PC censorship.
Despite stated respect for free speech in its national constitution, Canada now has a national speech code and judges and elites eager to expand it. The Canadian Supreme Court has issued a series of rulings stating that the government may limit speech in the name of worthwhile goals, such as ending discrimination, ensuring social harmony, or promoting sexual equality. The state may now seize published material judged to “degrade” or “dehumanize” any group.
What free-speech supporters would regard as horrendous abuses have become commonplace. In 1997, for instance, the mayor of London, Ontario, ran afoul of Canada’s Human Rights Code for refusing to declare a Gay Pride day, citing her Christian beliefs. The British Columbia College of Teachers refuses to certify teacher education programs at Christian universities if they urge students to abstain from premarital sex, adultery, or homosexual sex. The province’s hate-speech laws use extremely broad language, criminalizing statements that “indicate” discrimination or that “likely” will expose a group or one of its members to hatred or contempt.
Ted Byfield, editor of the now-defunct Alberta Report, violated that province’s human rights law by publishing an article noting that some children were grateful for the education they received at the government’s residential schools for Indians, much despised by multiculturalists and admittedly abuse-plagued. An injunction against the Alberta Report forbade stories on partial-birth abortions after Byfield ran a story quoting unnamed nurses and official documents saying that some babies subject to the procedure at a Calgary hospital were born alive and deliberately allowed to starve to death.
Canada has become “a pleasantly authoritarian country,” observes Alan Borovoy, general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. Robert Martin, a constitutional law prof at the University of Western Ontario, is harsher: Canada is now “a totalitarian theocracy,” he says, devoted to the secular state religion of political correctness.
Things are no freer across the pond. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties announced that it would prosecute any priests found distributing or quoting the pope’s words forbidding gay marriage. In England, author Lynette Burrows drew a police investigation for saying on a talk show that she opposes homosexual adoption. An Oxford student fared worse after a night out to celebrate the end of exams.
Stopped by a mounted policeman, he drunkenly quipped, “Excuse me, do you realize your horse is gay?” Unfortunately, the humor-free local constabulary arrested the young man under the Public Order Act for making homophobic remarks.
By law, 11 European nations can punish anyone who publicly denies the Holocaust. That’s why the discredited Holocaust-denying British historian David Irving went to prison in Austria. Ken Livingstone, London’s madcap mayor, drew a monthlong suspension for calling a Jewish reporter a Nazi. A Swedish pastor went through a long and harrowing prosecution for a sermon criticizing homosexuality, finally beating the rap in Sweden’s supreme court.
Naturally enough, Muslims want to play the same victim game as other aggrieved groups. The French Council of Muslims says that it’s considering taking France Soir, which reprinted the Danish cartoons, to court for provocation. When French novelist Michel Houellebecq said some derogatory things about the Koran, Muslim groups hauled him into court, which eventually exonerated him. The late Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci wrote an angry anti-Muslim book, meant to waken the West to the gravity of the threat posed by Islam. Her prosecution in Italy for writing the book was pending when she died in October.
Much of Europe has painted itself into a corner on Muslim-driven censorship. What can Norway say to pro-censorship Muslims when it already has a hate-speech law forbidding, among other things, “publicly stirring up one part of the population against another,” or any utterance that “threatens, insults or subjects to hatred, persecution, or contempt any person or group of persons because of their creed, race, color, or national or ethnic origin . . . or homosexual bent”? No insulting utterances at all? Since most strong opinions can seem insulting to someone—can hurt someone’s feelings—no insults means no free speech.
Chafing under First Amendment restrictions, many censorship-prone American leftists look longingly toward successful speech control up north or overseas. That’s what they want right here.
We are very lucky to have the First Amendment. Without it, our chattering classes would be falling all over themselves to ban speech that offends sensitive groups, just as Canadian- and Euro-chatterers are doing now. We know this because our campus speech codes, the models for the disastrous hate-speech laws elsewhere, were the inventions of our own elites. Without a First Amendment, the distortions and suppressions of campus life would likely have gone national. Mel Gibson, Michael Richards, and many rap artists would be in jail, or at least facing charges.
The cause of free speech can no longer expect much help from the American Civil Liberties Union, more concerned today with civil rights and multicultural issues than with civil liberties and free speech. True, the ACLU still takes some censorship cases—it led the fight against the first wave of campus speech codes circa 1990, for instance. But the rise of the ACLU’s internal lobbies or “projects,” such as the Lesbian and Gay Project and the Immigrants’ Rights Project, has made the organization look more and more like a traditional left-wing pressure group, with little passion for the First Amendment. The ACLU is also following the money: funds flow in because the group responds to concerns of feminist, gays, and other identity groups, not because of its historical defense of free speech and civil liberties.
These days, the ACLU visibly stands aloof from obvious First Amendment cases—such as the college speech and harassment codes—and even comes down on the anti-free-speech side. Consider the group’s stance in Aguilar v. Avis Rent-A-Car System, a case involving ethnic epithets aimed by supervisors at Latino employees of Avis in San Francisco. A California court ruled that Avis had permitted a hostile environment. The California Supreme Court, abetted by both the northern Californian and the national ACLU, agreed, and upheld the lower court’s startling speech restriction: prior restraint on workers’ speech, forbidding a judge-made list of specific words. These words, not yet revealed or promulgated, will soon be taboo in every California workplace, even outside the earshot of Latino employees, and even if they are welcome. As civil libertarian Nat Hentoff wrote: “This may be the broadest and vaguest restriction of speech in American legal history.”
Even with the ACLU, the mainstream media, school officials, and much of the professorate AWOL, the speech police haven’t gone unopposed. Just ask former Clinton official Donna Shalala. As chancellor of the University of Wisconsin in the late eighties, she proved a fervent early advocate of campus speech restrictions. Though Shalala occasionally praised free speech, she and her team imposed not only a full-fledged student speech code, later struck down in federal court, but also a faculty code that provoked the first (and so far, only) pro-free-speech campus campaign strong enough to repeal such repressive restrictions. The Wisconsin faculty code was a primitive, totalitarian horror. Professors found themselves under investigation, sometimes for months, without a chance to defend themselves or even to know about the secret proceedings. One female professor said: “It was like being put in prison for no reason. I had no idea what it was that I was supposed to have done.”
A small group of free-speech-minded faculty formed the Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights (CAFR). The group asked for help from the Wisconsin chapter of the pro-free-speech National Association of Scholars, which enlisted as speakers such celebrated allies as Alan Dershowitz and National Journal columnist Jonathan Rauch.
The First Amendment forces got a lucky break when the university signed a foolish contract with Reebok, in which it received millions of dollars in exchange for the use of the company’s footwear by campus sports teams. The contract included a clause forbidding negative comments on Reebok products by any “University employee, agent or representative.” The clause greatly irritated the anticorporate campus Left, which had usually been lukewarm or indifferent to free-speech concerns, helping convert some of its members to the anti-speech-code side. Later, a strong defense of free speech by a homosexual professor, called a traitor to his identity group for his courage, brought in other campus leftist allies. CAFR was amazed at how quickly many would-be censors backed down when confronted with controversy and threatened lawsuits. Wisconsin rescinded its faculty code—the first university to do so without a court order.
New national groups have joined the fight for free speech on campus (and off), among them the Center for Individual Rights, the Alliance Defense Fund, and FIRE, the most relentless of the newcomers. FIRE usually starts a campaign with a polite letter to a university president, noting that some policy is either unconstitutional or a clear violation of civil liberties. If it doesn’t get the change it wants, it will then write to trustees, parents, and alumni, and take its case to the media.
FIRE now has an extensive network of campus free-speech “spies,” as its cofounder, Harvey Silverglate, jauntily calls them (Alan Charles Kors, the other cofounder, prefers “concerned members of the community”). The organization is seeking new ways to open up closed campus systems, too, such as suing administrators as individuals, which FIRE believes will get their full attention. Another new tactic is to publicize what colleges spend on fighting for unconstitutional speech codes. Most of all, FIRE is trying to show stubborn administrators that the era of hiding gross civil liberties violations behind a PC wall of silence is over: the group wins more than 95 percent of its cases.
Political correctness took hold when there were 40 radio talk shows, three networks, and no bloggers. Today, the cross-referencing of PC outrages among bloggers, radio talkers, and rights groups makes it hard to run an old-fashioned repressive campus. University presidents now understand that their reputations do not rest entirely with the PC platoons. Donna Shalala escaped Wisconsin with her reputation intact. Sheldon Hackney, former president of Penn, did not. (I named my own annual award for the worst college president, the “Sheldon,” in his honor.) When he stepped down from the Penn presidency, he didn’t become the head of a major foundation, as many expected; instead, he wound up returning to Penn as a professor. Other reputations hang in the balance. Lee Bollinger, a First Amendment expert (and affirmative-action advocate), was invisible during the free-speech debates at Michigan and is almost as recessive today as president of Columbia. But it is getting harder for the Hackneys and Bollingers to waffle.
Perhaps the battle to release the campuses from the iron grasp of PC will take decades, but the struggle for free speech is being fought—and won—now.
View this article at City Journal.