The unpatriotic act

June 9, 2008

When people worry about their right to freedom of speech, they generally think about the government.

Some hysterically point to the Patriot Act, for instance, as an infringement on our civil rights. Where’s the line of victims?

Certainly we must always be wary of governments, especially when they say they’re here to help. But in truth, convention and the courts have done a pretty good job over the decades of protecting us from government censorship.

Often, the threat to our freedom of speech comes from outside the government — particularly from political correctness.

One of the most outrageous examples comes from so-called "speech codes" on college campuses.

Each month, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education — a nonprofit organization (www.thefire.org) dedicated to preserving free speech on campuses, highlights a particular speech code. This month, it’s at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

The Tufts speech code defines prohibited harassment as involving "attitudes or opinions that are expressed verbally or in writing, or through behavior that constitutes a threat, intimidation, psychological attack, or physical assault."

Further, the policy says "unwelcomed communications such as phone calls, misuse of message boards, e-mail messages, and other behaviors calculated to annoy, embarrass, or distress are harassing behavior and are prohibited."

Wow.

Can you imagine such overbearing sensibilities having colored the First Amendment? Can you imagine what kind of country we’d have if our Founders had tried to carve out all those politically correct exceptions to free speech?

Here’s your answer: It wouldn’t look anything like present-day America.

"What, exactly, is a psychological attack?" asks FIRE. "Is there any strong opinion that some person, somewhere, isn’t likely to find annoying?"

And how in the world can any institution try to govern "attitudes"?

Isn’t this precisely what Orwell tried to warn us about?

Granted, Tufts is a private university, FIRE notes, and thus is not technically bound by the First Amendment as a state university would be. But shouldn’t any institution of higher learning try to uphold individuals’ rights of speech and, for goodness’ sake, thought?

Moreover, FIRE notes that Tufts’ speech code actually blatantly violates the school’s own student handbook, which stresses that Tufts "is an open campus committed to the free exchange of ideas," and says "it is inevitable that some programs and speakers will be offensive to some members of the community" and that "civility can’t be required-it can only be encouraged."

This is one reason why speech codes are so ominous and so horribly misguided. Not only do they violate individuals’ rights, but they are also internally inconsistent with the mission of higher education as stated in the Tufts own student handbook.

It is folly, and often quite illegal, for colleges and universities to try to regulate the feelings of its students and visitors. These aren’t toddlers they’re dealing with; they’re full-grown young men and women who have fundamental constitutional and human rights to think and speak their minds.

It’s 2008. Isn’t it about time we got that part of the Constitution right?

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Schools: Tufts University