More on ‘Soft’ Violations of Conscience

By February 21, 2005

Thank you David for the recent post, and I would like to assure him I am not much for skewering (except the barbeque kind).

However, I do disagree, in part, with a recent post in which David discussed his thoughts on violations of the right to conscience. I fully agree that “mandatory diversity training, ‘sensitivity training’ as punishment for misconduct, and mandatory first-year orientation programs that teach students the correct way to think about race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion” can potentially violate students’ right to private conscience (you can read more about cases like this in the Guide to Free Speech on Campus). I am especially concerned with mandatory psychological and pseudo-psychological counseling as a tool against dissenting students, since I have seen this rationale used with increasing frequency.

However, David went on to describe what he called “soft” violations of the right to private conscience:

A student who studies history from professors who share a single point of view (or slight variations of the dominant viewpoint) will be led to believe that this viewpoint represents, well, history. Thus, the violation of freedom of conscience is subtle. Rather than being coerced, the student is essentially seduced—persuaded to join a program under the pretense that he or she will be learning broadly only to be taught narrowly. It is here that Colorado may be violating the rights of conscience, or—to put it a different way—engaging in “thought reform.”

While I deeply respect David’s opinion, I do not agree that “‘soft’ violations of conscience” are violations of conscience at all. A violation of conscience is a very serious abuse of authority, in which official power is used to dictate what someone else’s inward beliefs must be and/or to force someone to mouth beliefs he or she does not share. Forcing people to say the pledge of allegiance, as in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943), is a classic violation of the right to private conscience. Any state that claims to have any respect for freedom cannot make citizens pledge oaths against their will.

Many FIRE cases involve violations of right to conscience. Our recent case at Le Moyne College, in which a student was expelled because he would not toe the line of the college’s education department, involves a violation of the right to conscience. The University of South Carolina case in which students were given a list of “assumptions” they had to make when arguing in a mandatory class or be graded down was a violation of conscience. Our first Citrus College case involved an abuse of the right of conscience. In that case a professor offered extra credit only to students who wrote anti-war letters to President Bush, which she would then have mailed to the president. Professors should not use grades to coerce students into advocating positions they disagree with. Our speech codes litigation against Shippensburg University likewise involved a violation of the right to conscience because the university had promulgated rules requiring students to display a “commitment to racial tolerance, cultural diversity, and social justice…in their attitudes and behaviors” under threat of official punishment. The state has no business telling us what our “attitudes” must be. And the list goes on and on.

All of these cases, however, involved the improper use of power to coerce people to do something regardless of what their conscience might tell them (which David described as a “hard” violation of free speech). “Seducing” people over to your POV with the aid of the local popularity of your opinions is not violating anyone’s conscience. A San Francisco liberal atheist high school student who relocates to the Bible Belt and converts to Christianity has not had his conscience violated if the fact that all of classmates and teachers were Christian influenced his decision to convert. Likewise, a conservative Christian who goes to UC Boulder, takes a slew of courses in the ethnic studies department, has a change of heart, and decides he agrees with everything Ward Churchill ever said has no one to blame but himself.

Even if you suddenly find yourself in an atmosphere where everyone in power disagrees with you fundamentally and all the time, your conscience has not been violated unless power has been abused to change your mind or make you mouth opinions contrary to your beliefs. If anything less was the case, virtually any experience with foreign institutions could be considered a violation of conscience. The experience of having everyone else disagree with you (an experience which often causes “everyone else” to seem like some single-minded monolithic entity) is and has been the daily experience of true oddballs, dissenters, and iconoclasts throughout history. The perception that colleges are teaching “merely” their opinion of history or sociology or economics is the experience of any truly original thinker in any of those fields. The pain of having your beliefs challenged is necessary to a meaningful education, and at colleges we need them to embrace this idea more, not less.

FIRE’s focus on individual liberties makes a number of basic assumptions, including: (1) college students who are 18 or above are adults; (2) adult students have the fullest rights under the Constitution; and (3) adult students are not, to quote Alan Charles Kors, “too weak to live with freedom,” and should not be treated like they are. This is a “strong-actor model” worldview. This is not to say that all students are immediately capable of handling all of the burdens of citizenship, but we should treat them as if they are because attempts to impose in loco parentis or otherwise limit their rights are fraught with far greater danger than allowing students to make mistakes and learn on their own. The idea that “soft violations of conscience” matter steers us away from a “strong actor” model and proceeds towards a “victimization” model. This plays into the hands of those who think adult students need to have their rights curtailed lest they hurt themselves, which is the source of so many of the abuses FIRE sees everyday.

Furthermore, such a theory discounts the tremendous courage and independence of the students we have been lucky enough to work with. Charles Mitchell, Anthony Dick (who fights for free speech at UVA and even testified before the U.S. Senate on the issue of free speech on campus), and our own Minnie Quach, just to name a few, are sterling examples of students who never let anyone tell them who they are—their experience in college only strengthened their individuality and sense of self. Students are strong and prone to questioning everything, and we must never underestimate their resilience. For anyone who does not believe it, I recommend arguing with any activist 20-year-olds, whether they be on the left or on the right.

While “immersing” students in one side of the debate while discounting others is arguably bad pedagogy and not keeping with the best principles of open debate and discussion, no one’s conscience is violated simply because his or her view is unpopular (even extremely unpopular) on campus. FIRE can and will oppose viewpoint discrimination that keeps dissenting voices from being heard and will always fight against any act that imposes ideologies on students, but I fear the “right to be free from ‘soft’ violations of conscience” looks too much like the equally well intentioned “right not be offended.” And we all know the trouble that that perceived “right” has caused.

Schools: Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania Le Moyne College