Tolerating Intellectual Free Will

By December 17, 2010

by Zach Beims

The "great democratic experiment" that is the U.S. system of self-government may be complex in practice, but the contractual consent between the governed and the governing is predicated on a handful of inalienable rights that boil down to preserving the fundamental right of citizens to exercise free will in thought, speech and action, so long as that expression does not impede upon the rights of others.

The Bill of Rights is a testament to just how important protecting individual liberty was to the founding fathers. And for good reason; it is difficult to conceive of a more insidious, yet subtle threat to the health of a functioning representative democracy than the creep of onerous laws or rules that incrementally restrict individual freedoms or the right to defend those freedoms.

The free and open exchange of ideas, including the ability to independently form beliefs and evaluate competing viewpoints (no matter how controversial), is central to the concept of a government "of the people and by the people." College campuses are uniquely positioned to facilitate intellectual self-discovery and the awakening of political and social consciousness in young adults. Personal belief systems are shaped largely by the values of our families and the environments in which we are raised, but the college years are a formative period in defining a political/social self-identity independent of family and local cultural conventions.

I would like to believe that the foremost concern of college administrators would be to facilitate a vigorous examination of all possible facts, opinions and viewpoints so that each individual can arrive at his own informed "truth." The primary goal of education in a self-governing society should be teaching critical thinking skills and encouraging enlightened reasoning. Ideally, the college classroom should foster active political and social discourse, and support individual expression within the relative safe harbor of the academic setting.

Advocating an official monotheistic point of view-regardless of where it fits on the political spectrum-or worse, removing individual free will by mandating conformity to a particular set of beliefs, presents a clear and present danger to a self-governing representative democracy. There can be no freedom without the unencumbered civil expression of free will, whether in the form of a single voter anonymously marking his choice on a ballot or 500,000 mobilizing for a public demonstration on the National Mall to protest government policy.

Constitutionality issues aside, speech codes based on an uncompromising ideological position are detrimental to the concept of promoting critical thinking and an unrestricted exchange of ideas and opinions. Campus speech codes are particularly egregious because they are a proactive form of censorship disguised as good-intentioned policies to advance "tolerance," but they accomplish the exact opposite end. By labeling as offensive those topics, speakers or opinions that are outside politically acceptable boundaries, speech regulation has the effect of promoting intolerance and single-mindedness. What speech is appropriate and deserving of protection, and what should be banned altogether? What criteria are used to make this decision? Who decides what is offensive?

Even more alarming, political correctness can metastasize from speech control into attempts to modify thought and behavior. Adopting rather innocuous-sounding terminology such as the University of Delaware’s mandatory "orientation program" for residence halls, these policies sanction a small number of officials to advocate selective ideological positions using coercive "group think" methods. The objective was to blatantly force conformity to a prescribed official point of view, without regard to the individual’s personal, political or religious convictions. No debate or dissention allowed.

By adopting such positions as "all white people are racist" and treating any speech that could be deemed as racist, sexist or bigoted with the same urgency as a fire or a rape, the Office of Residence Life elevated politically incorrect speech and thought within campus dormitories to the level of life-endangering emergencies and felony violent crimes. Administrators even conducted interrogations of students to determine the degree to which they were buying into the program’s tenets, and contrary to their stated purpose, singled out individuals based solely on race and lifestyle.

It is hard to fathom the trail of twisted logic that led an American university to impose this kind of rigid, anti-intellectual orthodoxy on its student body as a compulsory requirement of campus residency. At the very least, it grossly impinges on students’ personal lives; at worst, it is an affront on every conceivable level to the purpose of higher education in a free society and violates Constitutionally protected individual liberties. Incredibly, the residence life office willingly and flagrantly violated the tenets of the University of Delaware’s own motto, "Knowledge is the light of the mind." Conditioning students to think in a singularly narrow manner and adopt a common, officially endorsed viewpoint is propaganda, not knowledge.

This kind of thought control is the domain of hard-line totalitarian regimes; it has no place in a democracy. It not only has a chilling effect on the expression of individual free will, but has an ambitious activist component that ultimately seeks to manifest change in the broader political and social body by modifying the core values and attitudes of one individual student at a time.

In the case of Keith John Sampson, the mere appearance of a politically untenable thought or action was deemed offensive and deserving of retributive "justice" without due process at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. An historical book that was available in the university’s own on-campus library was literally judged by its cover, as was Sampson. He was found guilty of racial harassment for creating a hostile atmosphere toward a black co-worker for simply reading the book, which ironically, documented the Ku Klux Klan’s demise in Indiana in the 1920s.

A single administrator within the IUPUI affirmative action office served as Sampson’s judge, jury and executioner without oversight or a process for appeal. The administrator threatened to impose disciplinary actions if Sampson did not change his reading practices and material to meet approved standards established internally by the affirmative action office. Although the racial harassment finding was eventually removed from Sampson’s record, his story illustrates the risk of blind adherence to any doctrine, politically correct or otherwise.

Like University of Delaware, IUPUI betrayed its stated mission to "value collegiality, cooperation, creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship as well as honesty, integrity, and support for open inquiry and dissemination of findings." The affirmative action office’s heavy-handedness and animosity were harmful to the student-employee and contradictory to the university’s professed obligation to students. Reading a book-any book-should never be regarded as an act of provocation on a college campus.

Novelist Sherwood Anderson stated, "The whole object of education is to develop the mind." Speech codes are incompatible with that objective. They suppress intellectual development by constraining access to information that someone, somewhere deems inappropriate. Free-thinking, inquiring minds must not become anomalies in lecture halls, research labs and dormitories. The most basic of rights is the ability to exercise free will in thought and speech. Because there can be no political, social, economic, religious or academic freedom without a free mind and a free tongue, institutions of higher learning should hold these personal liberties in particularly high esteem and ensure that secondary education is an exercise in intellectual free will.