CFN Member Defends FIRE on Phi Beta Cons

April 25, 2007

Over at Phi Beta Cons, Emory University professor and CFN member Dr. Mark Bauerlein fires away at Jon Gould’s recent criticism of FIRE in The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required). FIRE staffers have responded to Dr. Gould’s accusations on the Torch here, here, here, here, and here.

Bauerlein takes aim at Dr. Gould’s charge that FIRE uses selective quotation to exaggerate the threat of campus speech codes by highlighting the policy language that would violate protected speech while ignoring surrounding contextual language that supposedly renders those policies constitutionally benign.
Explicit policy statements that clearly violate protected speech are couched in softer sentiments and promises of free expression, making the “language vague and variable.” This blurs the line between unprotected speech and controversial but constitutionally protected speech. Students are left wondering whether their words will be punished under the explicit clause or protected under the savings clause. The result is a chilling effect on protected speech.
Furthermore, the ambiguous distinction between protected and unprotected speech leaves administrators wide latitude to enforce their policies arbitrarily. As Bauerlein points out, “harassment cases usually come about in that large and hazy middle ground that the variability of language opens up.” A brief glance at FIRE’s case archive reveals that most of our cases involve speech considered benign by a large part of the rest of American society.
Bauerlein concludes his post by pointing out that, not surprisingly, Gould makes use of the very semantic mechanisms administrators use to censor protected speech.

…Gould’s way of refuting FIRE’s selective quotation is itself a nice example of political correctness. Just because a speech code says it opposes censorship doesn’t undo its statement against “offensive” speech. Instead, it makes the anti-offensiveness assertion all the more murky.
That’s what political correctness relies upon. And the more we shift the meaning of words from the words themselves to the opinion of administrators and ideologues (of any kind), the longer it will continue.