Bad news for high school and college students and, of course, the work force: The thought police never go away. They just get more sophisticated and have fancier titles.
On the good news front, once in a while the thought police suffer a well-deserved but overdue thrashing. While these victories are heart-warming, they tend to come many years after students have suffered grossly unjust punishments at the hands of villainous academics, cops or prosecutors.
Enter Greg Lukianoff, a Danbury native and author of a new book, “Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate.” As president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Lukianoff is shouting fire in a crowded marketplace and having a swell time.
Lukianoff’s organization, known as FIRE, does a good job chronicling free speech suppression across the nation at its website http://thefire.org/. FIRE’s work tends to complement that of another important organization, the Student Press Law Center http://www.splc.org/. Both groups are effective advocates and litigators for free speech rights. They provide news about free speech violations and important cases. FIRE even rates colleges and universities on the levels of free speech restrictions. The Connecticut link http://thefire.org/spotlight/states/CT includes postings for public and private institutions.
FIRE was founded by Alan Charles Kors, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, and Harvey Silverglate, a Boston civil liberties lawyer. As authors, they tend to expose abuses from conservative or libertarian perspectives while standing up against censorship of rap music and unpopular speakers on the left. Among FIRE’s advisory board members: Nat Hentoff, author of many books about jazz and free speech, including “Free Speech for Me — But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other.” Lukianoff brings to the table experience as a lawyer for the ACLU of Northern California and describes himself as a “pro-choice liberal.” Bottom line seems to be they stand up for everyone’s free speech.
As bad as high school can be in stifling free expression and critical thought, I had little clue it could be worse in college before encountering Lukianoff and his work.
For example, a certain quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “This Side of Paradise” was banned on t-shirts in 2009 by, of all places, Yale. As part of the routine mockery associated with the annual Harvard football game, students produced a t-shirt quoting Fitzgerald: “I think of all Harvard men as sissies.” Some students argued “sissies” was a homophobic slur. In this case and many others, the slur is in the eye of the beholder.
Lesson learned: Beware speech and civility codes. Reading them can put you to sleep, but they pose a clear and present danger in the hands of the still-burgeoning and all-too-healthy class of university bureaucrats.
If Kors’ name rings a bell, yes, he was the guy who defended a student charged with racism for calling a group of noisy and mostly black sorority sisters outside his dorm room “water buffalo.” The student said the term was derived from Hebrew slang for a loud or rude person. Who knows, maybe he was watching The Flintstones. The charges were dropped after a public outcry including commentary from former NBC news anchor John Chancellor: “[The student] was told the term ‘water buffalo’ could be interpreted as racist because a water buffalo is a dark primitive animal that lives in Africa. That is questionable semantics, dubious zoology, and incorrect geography. Water buffalo live in Asia, not in Africa.”
“The big deal,” Lukianoff told me, “is colleges are the only institutions that are supposed to be teaching us to talk with each other. It can’t work if you get in trouble for expressing your opinion.”
Lukianoff highlights this point by citing a 2010 study of 24,000 college students and 9,000 faculty and staff by the American Association of Colleges and Universities. The study showed that only one in three students and fewer than one in five faculty and staff agreed it was “safe to hold unpopular positions on campus.”
“For reasons both good and bad — and sometimes for mere administrative convenience — colleges have promulgated speech codes that are not only absurd in their results but also detrimental to the ideals of free inquiry,” Lukianoff said in a recent New York Times op-ed. “Students can’t learn how to navigate democracy and engage with their fellow citizens if they are forced to think twice before they speak their mind.”
The long arm of high school and college apparatchiks can still extend from campus into the home depending on variables including where you live, if victims and the community tolerate it and the caliber and will of judges who care to enforce or ignore the First, Fourth and other Amendments.
Last year, a federal appeals court in Pennsylvania ruled that high school officials cannot “reach into a child’s home and control his / her actions there to the same extent that it can control that child when he / she participates in school sponsored activities.” Other federal appeals courts have had different opinions including the Second Circuit which covers Connecticut and has allowed the seizure of free speech t-shirts and punishment for on-line postings. The U.S. Supreme Court, meanwhile, continues to duck the issue.
In a huge victory to hold prosecutors accountable, a Colorado college student won a $425,000 settlement in 2011 – eight years after police raided his home and seized his computer. Thomas Mink’s “crime” was to post a parody of a professor. Mink, who went on to serve in AmeriCorps – the federal community service and disaster relief organization – was jailed for a week for free expression. The conduct of the prosecutor was so inept and reprehensible that a federal judge took the rare action of holding the official personally responsible for the civil rights violations, wiping away the virtually impenetrable shield of “qualified immunity.”
What is to be done in the face of such slaughter of our civil rights?
What matters — as in any amendment of the Bill of Rights — is who has the power to enforce it or ignore it. Those who are negligent deserve all the grief they can get.
In the face of repression, all citizens make the choice of willful ignorance, docility or resistance.
What is your choice?