Educational Institutions or Re-education Camps?

By on December 15, 2009

by Nathaniel Cornelius

If, as a hoax, someone had replaced the facts of Hayden Barnes’ story with a tale of repression from 18th- or 19th- century France, it might not have raised many eyebrows. Barnes was expelled from Valdosta State University after making a collage satirizing university President Ronald Zaccari’s support for a $10,000-a-space parking garage. His story would have fit perfectly well in a regime where, for example, the artist Honore Daumier was jailed for an unflattering caricature of King Louis Philippe. Similarly, the University of Delaware’s bizarre orientation program could have just as easily been the invention of a mad interrogator from Stalinist Russia, where those who did not applaud long enough at the dictator’s favorite concerts risked execution. Stalin himself would have appreciated how Delaware’s orientation program forced students to display support for every official ideological tenet or political opinion.

However, these disturbing events did not unfold in the courts of the French Empire or in the gulags of the Soviet Union. They happened in the United States, a country whose name has always been synonymous with freedom and has freedom of speech enshrined in its Constitution. What, then, has gone so terribly wrong that these violations of conscience would occur? These two schools directly disobeyed the Constitution with hardly a second thought-an ominous indicator of the low respect given to the supreme law of the land. Worse yet, they tried to use coercion, shame, and fear to prevent students from exercising their rights to their own beliefs-rights that are nominally protected and intrinsically obvious. Underlying all this is the university’s apparent goal of forcing its point of view on all members of its community. These actions reveal that the schools in question have indeed betrayed their own raison d’etre.

Simply put, Valdosta State University and the University of Delaware violated their students’ rights by going contrary to the Constitution. The First Amendment clearly states that "Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech," and this also applies to government-run or public institutions such as universities. Therefore, such schools cannot at their own discretion restrict expression on their campuses, even if that expression turns out to be dissenting, critical, or embarrassing. Both universities claimed an exception to this rule for speech posing a "clear and present danger," but expressing one’s concerns about a parking garage does not come close to fitting that description.

As one of FIRE’s videos points out, the University of Delaware went even further, attempting to control its students’ moral values and conscientiously held beliefs. This violates an enormously self-evident right. Similarly, while Valdosta State was already abridging students’ freedom of speech with its absurdly small free speech zone, it denied outright Hayden Barnes’ right of free expression by expelling him from school. This is more than an issue of a student who criticized the school administration in a humorous but perhaps untactful way. Nor is the Delaware case merely one of a university helping its students discuss controversial social issues. These are issues of civil rights and of the authority of the Constitution-an authority that is being increasingly ignored.

One might object that the principle of free speech has great potential for abuse. Colleges have to intervene, one might say, to prevent young people from saying outrageous things. Even if they go too far in regulating student speech, the courts will bring them back into line and no damage will have been done. However, the real potential for abuse actually lies on the other side, as schools like Valdosta State intimidate students into giving up their freedom without a murmur. If Hayden Barnes had not fought back in court, he would have had to either acquiesce to the university’s position or give up his pursuit of his degree. Other students would then infer from his example that disagreeing with the administration is not an option for them if they valued their academic careers.

At the University of Delaware, coercion operated on an emotional basis. The orientation program humiliated students in front of their peers for not conforming to its ideology, and instances of political incorrectness were treated as emergencies. This alone would browbeat the average student into silence. Furthermore, the university attempted to keep the program secret so that no one could step in and help those being intimidated. Thus, without anything official happening, this emotional pressure would have, in practice, abridged students’ rights of conscience and free expression.

The most serious aspect of these situations is the fact that the leaders of these schools seemed to claim exclusive knowledge of what is right for students and for Americans in general. At Valdosta State, President Zaccari refused to see any point of view but his as correct, considering Barnes’ disagreement a personal insult. Regardless of what was the best way to provide more parking, Zaccari’s administration should have at least had the grace to listen sincerely to Barnes’ input. The attitude of the leadership at the University of Delaware was much the same, only on a larger scale. As the FIRE video points out, the school officials believed that they alone saw society accurately.

These actions reveal blatant instances of circular reasoning, as the universities’ philosophical conclusions predetermined the framework in which students could acceptably think. Colleges should be gardens of free inquiry and unbridled intellectual growth, not machines that stifle free expression and stunt students’ development as persons. When a university uses freshman orientation to squeeze students into an ideological mold based on its particular set of presuppositions, or when it expels those who dare to question its strategic decisions, it is functioning more like a re-education camp than an educational institution.

It would be a cause for rejoicing if the University of Delaware and Valdosta State’s President Zaccari were alone in their radical behavior. Sadly, scores of cases like these occur every year. That is why the future of intellectual and social progress in America lies largely with the defenders of free speech. Without them, America will go the way of the ancien regime or the Soviet Union: downward into repression, bloodshed, and chaos. With vigorous advocates fighting for freedom of expression in America’s colleges and universities, there is hope that higher education will nourish students’ minds and spur them on to intellectual discoveries greater than those school officials have already attained. There is hope that young people will choose their philosophical, religious, and political views because they genuinely believe in them, not because they fear punishment for thinking otherwise. Most of all, there is hope that America will continue to endure as a nation with liberty and justice for all.