Why free speech advocates are angry

January 26, 2010

Sometimes people who don’t work in academia wonder why colleges are often the object of debates over free speech. Sure, some observers know that campuses are liberal enclaves, and they regard professors and administrators as easily intimidated by identity politics. But most people remember their college days as pretty much apolitical, and they continue to put the ideological elements in a small box.

That’s why it’s important to go back to the sources and hold them up to public scrutiny. Take campus speech codes. They have a bad name in public life, but they stand firm in student handbooks and campus policies in black and white. Here is a list of some of them, all taken from the list assembled by Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (www.thefire.org). (Some of them may have been altered by now, but the fact that they ever existed is sufficient cause for response.)

At Ohio University we have this definition of harassment: "Nonsexual verbal or physical conduct that denigrates or shows hostility toward another because of the person’s gender can be the basis for a hostile, offensive, or intimidating environment claim. Gender based conduct can take the form of abusive written or graphic material; epithets; sexist slurs; negative stereotyping; jokes; or threatening, intimidating, or hostile acts."

And here is this message from Boston College: "Boston College recognizes the essential contribution a diverse community of students, faculty and staff makes to the advancement of its goals and ideals in an atmosphere of respect for one another and for the University’s mission and heritage. Accordingly, Boston College commits itself to maintaining a welcoming environment for all people and extends its welcome in particular to those who may be vulnerable to discrimination, on the basis of their race, ethnic or national origin, religion, color, age, gender, marital or parental status, veteran status, disabilities or sexual orientation. Boston College rejects and condemns all forms of harassment, wrongful discrimination and disrespect."

Southern Illinois University Carbondale tells campus dwellers: "Discriminatory harassment includes, but is not limited to, conduct (oral, written, graphics or physical) directed against any person or group of persons because of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age, disability, or veteran’s status that has the purpose of or reasonably foreseeable effect of creating an offensive, demeaning, intimidating or hostile environment for that person or group of persons. Such conduct includes but is not limited to objectionable epithets demeaning depictions or treatment and threatened or actual abuse or harm."

University of Illinois-Urbana-Champagne: "Residents may not engage in conduct that threatens or endangers the health, safety, or physical or psychological well-being of any person. This includes, but is not limited to, actions related to a person’s race, color, national origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, or veteran status. Such conduct includes, but is not limited to, objectionable epithets, demeaning depictions or treatment, outrageous acts or communications that are intended to harass, intimidate, or humiliate, and threatened or actual abuse or harm."

At the University of Iowa, sexual harassment "occurs when somebody says or does something sexually related that you don’t want them to say or do, regardless of who it is."

And the Bucknell student handbook says, "Upon entry to Bucknell, students promise to observe the following points which are contained in the Pledge of Student Responsibility. As a member of the social community, I will respect individual differences and the rights of all others. I understand that bias on the basis of gender, handicapped status, national origin, race, religious belief, or sexual orientation, whether expressed in word or action, is repugnant, and that Bucknell will not tolerate harassment, discrimination, or violence against any person for any reason."

And Harvard explains, "The determination of what constitutes sexual harassment will vary with the particular circumstances, but it may be described generally as unwanted sexual behavior, such as physical contact or verbal comments or suggestions, which adversely affects the working or learning environment of an individual." Also, "Behavior evidently intended to dishonor such characteristics as race, gender, ethnic group, religious belief, or sexual orientation is contrary to the pursuit of inquiry and education. Such grave disrespect for the dignity of others can be punished under existing procedures because it violates a balance of rights on which the University is based."

At Georgetown, harassment includes "Any intentional or persistent act(s) deemed intimidating, hostile, coercive, or offensive."

The problem with these policies is that they lower the bar of disturbance to "offense" or "disrespect" or "objectionable" actions. They don’t recognize that Federal definitions of harassment require a level of severity far higher than these definitions assume. They open the door for administrators and bureaucrats who push an identity-politics agenda, or who harbor certain resentments, or who are just plain controlling personalities, and they also encourage individuals to lower their own tolerance and raise their sensitivities. It’s a recipe for thin-skinned reflexes, and poor training for adulthood.