Can a College that Protects Free Speech be ‘Gay-Friendly’?

July 26, 2011

Some college administrators seem to incorrectly believe that the only way to develop a “welcoming” environment for LGBT students is to limit student speech rights by prohibiting and punishing language that officials find to be offensive or derogatory. For example, at William Paterson University, an anti-harassment policy was used to stifle the private religious expression of a Muslim student-employee who had emailed a professor requesting that he not be sent any more emails “about ‘Connie and Sally’ and ‘Adam and Steve.'” This policy may have been intended to provide a “welcoming” environment for LGBT students, but what it did was censor protected student speech, in this case making the environment decidedly unwelcoming for a traditional believer in Islam.

That’s a trade-off that does not need to be made (and that a free society shouldn’t make). There’s no need to sacrifice free speech for a campus to be accepting of LGBT students.

As evidence of this, the University of Pennsylvania was recently ranked first in Newsweek‘s list of the “best gay-friendly schools” in the United States. At the same time, Penn is one of just 14 universities in the country that maintains policies fully honoring its students’ free speech rights, earning a rare “green light” rating from FIRE for protecting speech rights on campus.

Like any other list of rankings, people can validly agree or disagree with the outcomes. But the fact that Newsweek perceives Penn as being very gay-friendly shows that that perception does not have to be dependent upon the existence of policies that silence the mouths of those who disagree with a campus’s stance on political and social issues.

While it seems that nothing will prevent them from trying, it is crucial to realize that beliefs and attitudes cannot be imposed from above by college administrators. Speech codes are attempts to force a superficial veneer of civility or “right-thinking” onto free individuals. Noted civil libertarian Jonathan Rauch writes of the futility of censoring unpopular ideas in his book Kindly InquisitorsThe New Attacks on Free Thought:

The Inquisition failed to keep Copernicanism down. All it did was slow the progress of knowledge and kill people. The new inquisitions won’t work any better. Attempts to suppress beliefs only succeed in calling attention to them and making them causes célèbres. The insistence that racist or homophobic or any other opinions not be tolerated only guarantees that any college sophomore can make the headlines by being outspokenly racist or homophobic, and for many sophomores the temptation is too much to resist. Nasty speech gets nastier as people get angry and start picking fights. Outrage escalates on every side. But nobody’s mind is changed.

Rauch was a keynote speaker at FIRE’s 2010 Campus Freedom Network conference.

The marketplace of ideas is a more powerful weapon for tolerance than any speech restriction, as “good” ideas (those that are well supported by their endorsers in debate and dialogue) will win out in the marketplace and “bad” ideas (those that are not so well supported) will fail to gain favor. Newsweek‘s ranking of Penn as the best gay-friendly school in the nation proves that upholding individual free speech rights can be an extremely effective way of creating an accepting atmosphere—one that is not based on simple fear of the results of expressing disagreement.

Stifling student speech in the name of tolerance is ultimately as ineffective as it is oppressive. For moral as well as practical reasons, administrators who care about LGBT rights should exhibit an equal commitment to free speech rights. Establishing a welcoming atmosphere for gay students (for all students, in fact) is an admirable goal. It does not have to come at the expense of free speech rights. As the example of Penn shows, tolerance and freedom of speech are complementary values.

Oliver Rosenbloom is a FIRE summer intern.