Feigning Free Speech on Campus

October 24, 2012

DESPITE high youth voter turnout in 2008 — 48.5 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds cast ballots that year — levels are expected to return to usual lows this year, and with that the usual hand-wringing about disengagement and apathy among young voters.

Colleges and universities are supposed to be bastions of unbridled inquiry and expression, but they probably do as much to repress free speech as any other institution in young people’s lives. In doing so, they discourage civic engagement at a time when debates over deficits and taxes should make young people pay more attention, not less.

Since the 1980s, in part because of “political correctness” concerns about racially insensitive speech and sexual harassment, and in part because of the dramatic expansion in the ranks of nonfaculty campus administrators, colleges have enacted stringent speech codes. These codes are sometimes well intended but, outside of the ivory tower, would violate the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech. From protests and rallies to displays of posters and flags, students have been severely constrained in their ability to demonstrate their beliefs. The speech codes are at times intended to enforce civility, but they often backfire, suppressing free expression instead of allowing for open debate of controversial issues.

Last month, Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., forbade students to protest an appearance by Representative Paul D. Ryan, the Republican vice-presidential nominee. Why? According to university policy, students must apply 10 business days in advance to demonstrate in the college’s tiny “free speech zone” — and Mr. Ryan’s visit was announced on a Sunday, two days before his Tuesday visit.

Also last month, a student at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, was blocked from putting a notice on her door arguing that neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney was fit for office. (She successfully appealed.) And over the summer, a federal judge struck down the University of Cincinnati’s “free speech zone,” which had limited demonstrations to 0.1 percent of the campus.

In a study of 392 campus speech codes last year, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, where I work, found that 65 percent of the colleges had policies that in our view violated the Constitution’s guarantee of the right to free speech. (While the First Amendment generally prohibits public universities from restricting nondisruptive free speech, private colleges are not state actors and therefore have more leeway to establish their own rules.)

Some elite colleges in particular have Orwellian speech codes that are so vague and broad that they would never pass constitutional muster at state-financed universities. Harvard is a particularly egregious example. Last year, incoming Harvard freshmen were pressured by campus officials to sign an oath promising to act with “civility” and “inclusiveness” and affirming that “kindness holds a place on par with intellectual attainment.” Harry R. Lewis, a computer science professor and a former dean of Harvard College, was quick to criticize the oath. “For Harvard to ‘invite’ people to pledge to kindness is unwise, and sets a terrible precedent,” he wrote on his blog. “It is a promise to control one’s thoughts.”

Civility is nice, but on college campuses it often takes on a bizarre meaning. In 2009, Yale banned students from making a T-shirt with an F. Scott Fitzgerald quotation — “I think of all Harvard men as sissies,” from his 1920 novel “This Side of Paradise” — to mock Harvard at their annual football game. The T-shirt was blocked after some gay and lesbian students argued that “sissies” amounted to a homophobic slur. “What purports to be humor by targeting a group through slurs is not acceptable,” said Mary Miller, a professor of art history and the dean of Yale College.

Elsewhere, rules that aim for inclusiveness do more to confuse students than to encourage debate. Earlier this year, Vanderbilt prohibited student groups (if they wished to receive university support and financing) from barring students from leadership positions based on their beliefs. The apparent goal was to prevent evangelical Christian groups from excluding gay students from leadership positions — but the policy also means that a Democrat could be elected as an officer of the College Republicans.

2010 study by the American Association of Colleges and Universities of 24,000 college students and 9,000 faculty and staff members found that only 35.6 percent of the students — and only 18.5 percent of the faculty and staff — strongly agreed that it was “safe to hold unpopular positions on campus.”

For reasons both good and bad — and sometimes for mere administrative convenience — colleges have promulgated speech codes that are not only absurd in their results but also detrimental to the ideals of free inquiry. Students can’t learn how to navigate democracy and engage with their fellow citizens if they are forced to think twice before they speak their mind.

Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, is the author of “Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate.”

Schools: Vanderbilt University Harvard University