IT ISN’T often that a group of college professors is soundly and thoroughly embarrassed by a collection of mere students in an intellectual arena. But that’s exactly what happened at the end of February, when the University of Alabama’s Student Senate passed a sharp resolution directly opposing a heavy-handed, short-sighted and illiberal “hate speech” resolution that their Faculty Senate had already passed. The Faculty Senate’s original resolution called for the creation of a series of new regulations which threatened to drastically curtail First Amendment rights at their public university. With their remarkably independent and sophisticated response, UA’s students have schooled their teachers with a much-needed lesson in the fundamentals of a free and open society.
The Faculty Senate’s original “hate speech” resolution came down after an incident that smacks of tired familiarity to any casual observer of campus political correctness. UA hired a comedian who came and made some offensive remarks to a gay student. Like clockwork, with factory-produced fervor and indignation, the college administration put out a statement condemning this “shameful incident” of “bigotry and malicious aggression” which was a “personal attack” on a student. Everyone sat around rubbing their temples, bemoaning oppression and intolerance for a few days, until some towering, renaissance-minded enthusiasts were struck with the brilliant and novel idea to finally put an end to hate speech, once and for all. It just can’t help but make your heart warm.
Unconscious or uncaring of their striking similarity to all the other would-be censors across time and space, UA’s gallant Faculty Senators donned their white armor and rode to the rescue under the clichéd but still impressive banners of “diversity,” “respect,” and “civility.” Holding up their resolution like a lonely beacon of light in the ignorant darkness of America — make that the American South — they wrote: “It is never appropriate to demean or reduce an individual based on group affiliation or personal characteristics… The University of Alabama has a duty reflected both in law and in standards of civility to control behavior which demeans or reduces an individual based on group affiliation or personal characteristics, or which promotes hate or discrimination, in all formal programs and activities.”
Now, it’s not clear whether they stopped to ponder the fact that Christians and conservatives happen to be individuals with group affiliations and personal characteristics that have historically made for some pretty good satire. Nor has it been reported whether or not whatever was left of the faculty’s liberal souls shriveled up and died immediately upon seeing themselves approve the words “control behavior” and “standards of civility” in the same sentence, advocating censorship of words and ideas.
But imagine the professors’ shock and inner turmoil when they received an open letter from a civil liberties watchdog group, with Stanford and Harvard law credentials, accusing them of trampling on the First Amendment. The letter, from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, stated: “The United States Supreme Court has consistently held that empowering public officials to ban speech based on its content will naturally result in the silencing of dissenting viewpoints.” The letter also demonstrated that the spirit of the “vague and dangerously overbroad restriction” proposed by the Faculty Senate clearly served to undermine the values of free inquiry and open discussion that are at the heart of any healthy university.
Picking up on FIRE’s message, the members of UA’s Student Senate laid out their obvious case. First, they argued, “The right to free speech is an inalienable human and civil right that is protected by the United States Constitution and the Constitution of Alabama.” They continued, “Free speech is absolutely vital to the mission of any university, where new and often controversial ideas must be discussed openly and rationally in order to make advances in knowledge.” And as they also pointed out, “Speech codes have been used by other colleges and universities to silence dissenting speech, not merely so-called ‘hate speech,’ and to persecute those with unpopular opinions.” Finally, they used a Thomas Jefferson quote to demand that UA should explicitly protect, not reject, the individual rights of free expression that the First Amendment guarantees.
This clash of paradigms betweenUA’s students and faculty is a sign of the times in academia, where the left has become the establishment, embracing the very tools of censorship and repression that 1960s radicals fought so bravely against. It’s also deeply instructive of how the left’s corrupting power on college campuses has tempted many leftists to become thoroughly illiberal, landing them on the wrong side of the divide between liberty and authority. Our community should pay close attention, as we continue to debate the proper way to combat ignorance and hate here at our own University. We’re confronted with a choice between prudish censorship on the one hand, and free and open debate on the other. If our Student Council had half the maturity, backbone and insight of UA’s Student Senate, we might already have made our decision clear.