FIRE Intern from Drexel Reflects on the University’s Speech Code

By January 8, 2007

Amanda McArthur is a student at Drexel University and is currently interning at FIRE.  Drexel was recently featured as one of the Speech Codes of the Year, and here Amanda discusses her evolving feelings about freedom of speech and the speech code at her school: 
As an English major at Drexel, a university renowned for its education in engineering and business administration, I’ve had more than my share of doubts concerning my choice to do a six-month co-op, or full-time internship. For liberal arts students, the program is more of an independent search that involves applying to a company or organization that has most likely never heard of the co-op program. When FIRE hired me, I felt lucky enough to have found a job; I had no idea it would drastically alter my perception of free speech.
 
Prior to starting at FIRE, I didn’t know that free speech in our nation’s colleges was even an issue. If someone had asked me three months ago about free speech, I would have had no opinion other than perhaps a bland remark about our nation’s values. Maybe this is because I’m socially liberal—college campuses are breeding grounds for mindsets like mine. I have always prided myself on being tolerant, considerate, and open minded toward people from different cultures and lifestyles; ignorant or hateful comments directed their way infuriated me—and still do. Up until a few months ago I probably would have supported legislation outlawing anti-homosexual or racist speech.  But after three months with FIRE, I’ve changed my mind.  
Drexel University, on the other hand, seems to be of a different opinion, and has an ambiguous speech code to prove it.  While Drexel maintains a policy on disorderly or disruptive conduct that prohibits “intentionally interfering with the freedom of expression or movement of others,” it also upholds other policies that place heavy restrictions on that very freedom. Drexel’s harassment policy states, “…the University considers abusive and insulting speech or conduct directed to an individual or individuals inconsistent with the maintenance of academic freedom and unprotected by the right of free speech that the University confers.” So apparently, Drexel first confers a right to free speech to its students, and then interferes with that right, in the same policy, by constricting its definition.   
The most significant problem with this policy is this: who decides what is “insulting” or “abusive?” It sounds to me like it depends wholly on who complains, and with whom the administration agrees at any given time. Debate, heated or otherwise, spurs passionate discourse, which, under the current speech policy, is outlawed at Drexel. Later in the policy, the university also bans “inappropriately directed” laughter and “inconsiderate” jokes. I don’t think any of us can remember the last time we laughed at something that was both appropriate and considerate. So according to this speech code, students at Drexel would be wise to follow the rule to which we’ve been subject since we first learned to speak—if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. It all sounds a bit boring to me. 
Or perhaps worse than boring; Drexel seems to have forgotten one of the main ideals upon which our Constitution was based, and that was expressed so well by Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This saying has become so widely used that most of us don’t even remember who originally said it. (I’ve even heard it attributed to Stewie Griffin, who used the quote in an episode of Family Guy.) But somehow it gets pushed out of our minds when it needs to be applied to real life rather than an idealism, and history has taught us the dangers of not differentiating between the two. Goethe once said, “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free. The truth has been kept from the depth of their minds by masters who rule them with lies. They feed them on falsehoods till wrong looks like right in their eyes.”  
It’s a bit of an extreme comparison, yes, but also annoyingly relevant. Rather than coercion by force or brainwashing, ours is a country of catches, loopholes, and fine print. Some of the most efficiently oppressive but widely unrecognized fine print plaguing our country presents itself in the form of speech codes like Drexel’s. “Politically correct” is the catch phrase of the decade, and its manifestation on college campuses has brought about many inconspicuous ways to suppress our speech. As college students we read our university’s policy on free speech, and the thought of unadulterated, intellectual debate sends chills of excitement down our spine. But when we get further through the handbook we find the catch, in the form of a speech code hiding cowardly behind the name “harassment policy.” Half of us don’t see it. “Oh, but that’s different,” we say, perpetuating the idea that speech can only be free if it doesn’t offend someone else. Unfortunately, this idea is more than a little skewed. Speech should be free especially if it offends someone else. I think the Supreme Court put this idea best in its decision in Terminello v. Chicago: “[Freedom of speech] may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.” Something tells me a joke, no matter how inappropriate, falls within those lines.