Protecting Students from the Speech Police

By January 22, 2008

A longtime FIRE supporter has elaborated on my post on the University of Georgia case where a student’s anonymity was violated because of allegedly offensive speech in a course evaluation. Responding to Randy Cohen’s opinion in his New York Times Magazine column “The Ethicist,” I wrote that “a student’s expression in a course evaluation is very rarely—almost never—actionable, and the standard for punishing it must be extremely high, just like the standard for punishing speech in other contexts.”

On this point I disagreed with Cohen, at least in the case of universities that value free speech or are required by law to uphold the U.S. Constitution. Cohen wrote that “[a]nonymity should be guaranteed only for comments about a professor’s work, not as a get-out-of-jail-free card for making sexist or racist cracks or threatening a fellow student.” I strongly disagree with Cohen’s germaneness standard, and my correspondent agrees with me on the general principle:

Cohen seemed to be defending the idea that with obstacles such as confidential[it]y cleverly removed, it would be appropriate for universities to punish students for the expression of opinions generally regarded as obnoxious, offensive, or hurtful to certain groups. This is hardly a pro-free-speech position. In effect it advocates that universities take actions that are inconsistent with academic freedom, which encompasses views that are presumptively stupid, unenlightened, and insulting as much as any other opinions, actions, moreover, that are positively prohibited in publicly supported schools where First Amendment considerations prevail by law…. [Cohen’s] corpus of ethical principles does not seem to include basic civil-libertarian notions.

Anonymous or not, what a student writes on a course evaluation can almost never, legally or morally, be investigated or punished. And to go a step further, the threat of revoking anonymity is tantamount to offering no anonymity in the first place. Course evaluations are anonymous so that students can express how they really feel about a professor and a course, and faculty need thick enough skins to read whatever criticisms their students offer without running to an administrator to make a claim of harassment.

The problem can be traced back to the speech codes that would prevent students from expressing themselves anywhere on campus, in course evaluations or elsewhere. This is just the latest arena where the speech police have brought their sticks.