Campus Conscience Police?

December 21, 2005

“Over one’s inner mind, and self, no one has coercive power.”

So write attorneys Jordan Lorence and Harvey A. Silverglate, authors of the just-published Guide to First-Year Orientation and Thought Reform on Campus from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

The Guide is yet another indication that political correctness is faltering on campuses across North America. To those who value the right of individuals to a conscience—that is, to judge right and wrong for themselves—this is welcome news.

Political correctness is the belief that certain ideas and attitudes are improper and, so, should be discouraged or prohibited by punishing those who advance them. Conversely, ideas and attitudes that are proper should be encouraged by being enforced.

An example of a politically incorrect idea: inherent biological differences between the two sexes explain why there are more male than female scientists. The correct version: discrimination against women explains the ‘gender imbalance’ in science, and the discrimination must be remedied.

Both preceding explanations may have merit but PC is not interested in weighing evidence. It acts to quash the ideologically incorrect idea and to champion the correct one.

Last January, when Harvard University President Lawrence Summers raised the mere possibility of biological differences as an explanation for the ‘gender imbalance’ in science, a vicious PC backlash forced him to apologize publicly no less than three times. After what some called his “Soviet-show-trial-style apologies,” Summers made an act of contrition by pledging “to spend $50 million over the next decade to improve the climate for women on campus.”

The most important aspect of the sad episode is not whether the explanation of biological differences is correct. It is that the idea cannot be so much as suggested without the ‘offender’ paying a terrible price in public humiliation and in his career.

The cost to society is high; creativity and intellectual progress wither. The cost to individuals is higher; without competing ideas, people cannot adequately judge for themselves what is true and false, right or wrong, moral and immoral. For me, that private judgment is what constitutes a conscience, to which every human being has an indispensable and inalienable right.

The Summers debacle was a high-profile example of a PC process that has proceeded more quietly across North American campuses for decades.

The ability of students to judge for themselves is restricted by limiting the ideas upon which those judgments would be passed. In turn, this impoverishes the quality of conscience.

FIRE’s new Guide—the fifth in a series of ideological survival manuals for college students—describes both the manner in which the right of conscience is being attacked on campus and how the tide is turning toward individual rights.

Three common ways in which universities limit a student’s access to ideas are speech codes, mandatory ‘diversity’ tests or training, and ‘non-discrimination’ policies.

Speech codes prohibit expression that could give offense on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, race or other ‘historical disadvantage.’ The codes are used primarily to protect women, minorities and gays from words or ideas that they might experience as insulting. The guidelines are often so vague as to prohibit the open discussion of issues like affirmative action or religious objections to homosexuality.

Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania offers an example. In April 2003, the university defined harassment as any “unwanted conduct which annoys, threatens, or alarms a person or group.” “[E]very member of the community” was required to adopt the administration’s guidelines not only in his or her behaviors but also “in their attitudes.” In 2004, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania issued a preliminary injunction against the university’s codes as unconstitutional and they were repealed.

Mandatory diversity tests and training attempt to correct the unacceptable political views of students. The experience of Ed Swan, a self-described conservative Christian at Washington State’s College of Education, offers an example.

Swan expressed the belief that white privilege and male privilege do not currently exist in our society. In 2004 he was given low scores on a “dispositions criteria” by which some universities rank the “social commitment” of students. The university threatened to disenroll Swan if he did not sign a contract that committed him to further political screening and re-orientation. Due to a letter from FIRE and a high-profile protest, the contract requirement was dropped.

Non-discrimination policies, which are ostensibly inclusive, have been used to ban “dissenting” groups from campus and from receiving the student funds to which their members are required to contribute. Christian groups seem particularly vulnerable.

For example, in April 2005, the group Princeton Faith and Action sought official student status. Its application was denied because FPA is connected to an outside organization (the Christian Union) that was not yet established at Princeton University. Other groups were not required to meet a similar standard.

On May 13, the student newspaper the Daily Princetonian reported, “Nassau Hall has reversed its policy on the recognition of religious student groups after being contacted by an outside civil liberties organization that protested the treatment of one such group as an ‘ongoing injustice’.”]

The right to judge for yourself what is true and false, what is right and wrong is a prerequisite for both freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The right of conscience is the bottom line of personal liberty itself. And it is being reasserted.

Download file "Campus Conscience Police?"

Schools: Washington State University Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania Princeton University Harvard University Cases: Washington State University: Use of Dispositions Theory to Enforce Ideological Orthodoxy Princeton University: Refusal to Recognize Religious Group Shippensburg University: Speech Code Litigation