Inside the Mind of the Censor

March 11, 2005

One of the most depressingly predictable patterns in modern higher education is the extreme overreaction to a single incident of inappropriate or “offensive” speech. Again and again, we have seen schools take repressive action to “improve the climate” or “create a welcoming environment” after incidents that are either innocuous (like the parody mentioned in Greg’s post below about Harvey’s recent column) or isolated. At Wheaton College in Massachusetts (a school that already features a rather repressive speech code), a student apparently wrote the word “dykes” on a dry erase board hanging on a lesbian student’s dorm room door. This action triggered the following message from Dean of Students Sue Alexander:

To All Members of the Wheaton Community:

I have just learned that last Sunday morning, a lesbian student found the word “DYKES” written on a message board on the door of her residence hall room. Despite all our efforts to make this a safe and affirming place, an act like this can still happen.

This action is a gross violation of the values we most cherish at Wheaton. The college intends to promote an atmosphere of respect and to provide an environment where everyone can be who they are without fear. Our Honor Code states clearly that, “As members of the Wheaton Community, we commit ourselves to act honestly, responsibly, and above all, with honor and integrity in all areas of campus life. We are accountable for all that we say and write…. We commit ourselves to behave in a manner which demonstrates concern for the personal dignity, rights and freedoms of all members of the community…. We will not tolerate a lack of respect for these values.”

In cases where hate speech involves threats to individuals or property damage, it becomes a hate crime and is punishable under both State and Federal law. The Public Safety Department is currently investigating this incident. If you have any information which might help to identify the perpetrator, please call Director of Public Safety, Chuck Furgal or Assistant Director David Bamford at ext. 8213.

In this academic community, we expect that everyone will become knowledgeable of the histories of oppressed and marginalized peoples, in our own nation and in the world. We must understand the terrible significance of this kind of hate speech.

We view this act as an opportunity to examine the ways the campus responds to all historically marginalized groups. Actions of this sort need to be responded to by bringing the campus together to talk about their significance, not only for Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgendered and Queer individuals but for all of us. This particular deed must focus our attention on other less overt acts of racism, antisemitism, and homophobia on campus which go unaddressed. We know that the vast majority of people here do not engage in this kind of behavior or share this homophobic viewpoint. Now, in the face this incident, it’s important for us to speak out. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil, is for good people to do nothing.” (Dr. Edith R. Levy)

Talk to your friends, colleagues, hall staff, senators, preceptors, anyone who will listen. Make it known that we will not support this kind of behavior and we will do everything possible to identify those who engage in it!

Please take advantage of the programs that will be provided immediately after the break by the college, the Student Life Office and the Alliance to address the climate for LGBTQ members of our community.

Note that the dean compares writing a single bad word on a dry erase board to a “threat” actionable under hate crime statutes. Also note the call to focus attention on “less overt” acts not just of “homophobia” but also of “racism” and “antisemitism.” With its false use of hate crime statutes, its call to focus attention on undefined other acts, and its demand for further education regarding the proper way to interact with members of the community, this memo lays the groundwork for speech codes prosecutions.