Repealing free speech

May 16, 2013

The Justice Department put its contempt for the First Amendment on full display with its snooping on journalists at The Associated Press. It’s a display of contempt for freedom of the press equaled only by the administration’s disdain for freedom of speech, another of the essential First Amendment protections. The military has lately demonstrated a similar contempt for freedom of religious expression.

 

The Justice Department is making common cause with the Department of Education to renew the push for “speech codes” on campus. The sordid scheme was revealed in a letter of May 9 to President Royce Engstrom at the University of Montana, where the federal government proposes to limit free expression as a “blueprint for colleges and universities throughout the country.”

 

Colleges were once the place where young men and women could explore new ideas and learn a thing or two that might be useful. No longer. When the fad for political correctness came down on us in the 1980s and ‘90s, administrators quickly surrendered to bullies, and stringent speech codes were adopted to “protect” students from words deemed to be insensitive, discriminatory or hateful. Some of these codes have been struck down as unconstitutional, but many remain.

 

Columbia University prohibits “belittling remarks” about “gender,” and no “inappropriate sexual innuendoes or humor.” The New Jersey Institute of Technology requires student groups to “have the content of their advertisements approved” before a simple flier or poster can be put up in the campus center. More advanced houses of learning have since realized that freedom of thought and expression takes precedence over whining and have eliminated these unconstitutional blights.

 

The Obama administration wants to reverse that trend. It’s pressuring schools to adopt a redefinition of sexual harassment far broader than those that have already been declared unconstitutional by a number of federal courts.

 

The letter from the government to the University of Montana explained that federal agencies think “sexual harassment should be more broadly defined as ‘any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,’” including “verbal conduct” — in plain words, “speech.” The harassing expression need not even be offensive to an “objectively reasonable person of the same gender in the same situation.” Translated from government crime-speak, this means punishments can be imposed on someone who says something objectively harmless as long the listener files a complaint, no matter how irrational, baseless or trivial it might be.

 

The new scheme goes further than even the Education Department’s own prior guidance on the subject. Previously, the department decreed that unacceptable conduct “must include something beyond the mere expression of views, words, symbols or thoughts that some person finds offensive.”

 

Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, says the proposed mandates are “so broad that virtually every student will regularly violate them.” Mr. Lukianoff’s organization has spent years in the courtroom battling similar speech codes. The latest plan will only increase the litigation. “With this unwise and unconstitutional decision,” says Mr. Lukianoff, “the Justice and Education departments have doomed American campuses to confusion and expensive lawsuits while students’ fundamental rights twist in the wind.”

 

The Constitution recognizes freedom of speech and of the press as necessary to sustain a free society. Americans should speak up against the administration’s attack on the First Amendment — while they still can.

Cases: Departments of Education and Justice: National “Blueprint” for Unconstitutional Speech Codes