From the Free Speech Movement to Speech Codes

By on July 29, 2005

As I write, FIRE’s offices are overflowing with the vitality of our 11 summer interns, undergraduates and law students from across the country and across the political spectrum, joined in an understanding that something has gone terribly wrong on America’s campuses and determined to reclaim these institutions on behalf of the values and principles that are essential to American liberty, fairness, and legal equality.
 
Student activists of the late 1960s and early 1970s had claimed that they wanted liberty: free speech, freedom of association, freedom of conscience, and the freedom to define themselves. Some indeed did want those things, but among those who remained on campus, far too many wanted them not as ends in themselves, but merely as means to advance a partisan, political agenda. They secured those things for themselves, destroying most of the in loco parentis functions of the university (universities standing in the place of parents). The students who followed them, however, did not look up to the aging heirs of the ’60s as gurus or as moral and political leaders; indeed, those new students often made fun of the ’60s, recoiled from its styles, and sought to define themselves. For the heirs of the ’60s, those new students had to be saved from themselves and from American society, and freedom for students was the first thing to be sacrificed to that agenda.
 
Campus zealots have changed their motto on so many of America’s campuses from “Don’t trust anyone over 30” to “Don’t trust anyone under 30.” They have given up on the notion that students are young adults; instead they have institutionalized their views in the in loco parentis role of universities and so made their own particular ideological analysis of America the official secular religion of academic life.
 
They believe that most undergraduates are intellectual and political children who enter universities inadequately aware of the effects of an American caste system of “race, gender, and sexuality.” They also believe—a patronizing perspective that is almost unchallenged in academic life—that most so‑called minorities (each of us, in fact, is a unique moral minority of one)—students of African or of mixed racial descent, students of Hispanic descent, gays and lesbians, native peoples, students of Asian descent, and, though they are in fact a majority, women—do not adequately understand the nature and methods of their “oppression,” and, indeed, often have internalized the very values by which society oppresses them.
 
Leninists labeled this phenomenon of judging from the perspective of your oppressor “false consciousness” (what could workers know, compared to intellectuals, about what workers authentically want?), and their murderous contempt for those with false consciousness drowned the world in blood. Today’s would-be leaders of a cultural revolution—without physical force at their disposal, much more benign, generally well-intentioned, and often dear souls—believe, alas, so-called minority students who think differently from them are bearers of false consciousness. Campuses today label false consciousness “internalized oppression,” and they identify it most easily by any tendency of blacks and women to question the view of reality held by their would-be guides.
 
Although countless courses in the official curriculum undertake to enlighten all students from these perspectives, for many proponents of using universities as agents of ideological change, curricular control is simply not enough. Undergraduates often refuse to choose Indoctrination 101. Students remain independent and critical in their thought and values. Most so-called minorities do not believe that they are too weak or mystified to live with freedom and to make choices for themselves. Most whites just do not feel guilty about their birth. Women and men, far from perceiving each other as class enemies, continue to flirt and fall in love, if not collaboration of a far, far closer kind. Thus, coercive administrative authority must be brought to bear over students’ extracurricular and private lives, in order to give politically correct moral enlightenment and inspiration to undergraduates. The children of the ’60s, in the ’60s, had asked, “What could our elders know, being the product of America?” The children of the ’60s, now elders, put the question a bit differently at the dawn of the 21st century: “What could our children know, being the product of America?”
 
Thus, we have moved at more and more campuses from their Free Speech Movement to their speech codes, from their own struggle against mandatory chapel to their own struggle for mandatory diversity education and sensitivity seminars, from their struggle for racial integration to their efforts for new forms of separate racial programs, from their freedom to smoke pot openly on college lawns to their war against the spirits—literal and metaphorical—of undergraduates today. American students are victims of a generational swindle of truly epic proportions. More and more students understand that now, and FIRE draws great energy and inspiration from them.