Arizona Universities: ‘Offense-Free Zones’

March 10, 2006

This week, the Arizona State Senate considered a bill that would mandate that universities provide alternative assignments when a student found an assignment to be “offensive.” Generally, FIRE limits its involvement in legislative matters and, while we are certainly willing to testify when called, we do not take formal positions on these matters. But, with that said, from time to time, FIRE will still comment informally on pending legislation—especially when it is as worrisome as this bill.

Simply put, it is impossible to promote a meaningful educational environment while shielding students from all “offensive” ideas. In a society that holds freedom and liberty as core values, people will occasionally be offended, especially in the hypersensitive university settings of today. This is not a bad thing; it is simply part of the educational process. Atheists might be offended by an assignment requiring research of organized religion, conservatives may be offended by Michael Moore delivering an anti-war lecture on campus, anarchists may be offended by the model UN club, and still others may be offended by an affirmative action bake sale. These conflicts are inevitable in an environment where vigorous discussion of divergent viewpoints is encouraged. In order to promote thought and development, students must be presented with a marketplace of ideas which will, undoubtedly, contain some concepts that individuals will find offensive.

Perhaps the Arizona State Senate should be more concerned with mandatory programs that seek, through the use of coercive measures, to change a student’s fundamental beliefs to those of a pre-approved set of beliefs established by the university. As discussed in FIRE’s Guide to First-Year Orientation and Thought Reform on Campus, these mandatory thought reform sessions are an affront to a student’s freedom of association and right of conscience. In order to develop independent thought, students should be exposed to a marketplace of ideas, but never required to believe in only one ideology.

As FIRE Interim President Greg Lukianoff is fond of saying at FIRE, “If you go through four years of college without being offended, ask for your money back.” In order to learn, students must explore and challenge controversial ideas, not ignore and hide from them. Remember, at one point in time, rebelling from England, freeing slaves, and ending segregation were considered highly offensive and controversial, too.