The Eternally Radical Idea

The Eternally Radical Idea

Is Campus Censorship the New Normal?” in Free Inquiry Magazine

July 29, 2010

This article appeared in Free Inquiry.

Check out the latest issue of Free Inquiry magazine which features an article by my colleague Will Creeley and me that explores how censorship of campus speech ends up hurting all of us in the long run. The article, entitled “Is Campus Censorship the New Normal?”, focuses on three specific types of censorship we’ve repeatedly seen on campus in our work for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

First, we discuss attempts to silence or punish speech critical of Islam and Israel, detailing FIRE cases at Yale, Tufts, San Francisco State University, and UC Santa Barbara, among others. For one example:

In 2006, a San Francisco State University administrator became possibly the first public official in our country’s history to violate the Establishment Clause by enforcing Islamic Sharia law. She claimed that students who had stepped on homemade mock-ups of Hezbollah and Hamas flags as a part of an anti-terrorism protest were guilty of “desecrating the name of Allah” after the students were put on trail for “incivility” for their indisputably protected speech. (After all, the Supreme Court has made clear that citizens possess a First Amendment right to burn an American flag; stepping on the flags of designated terrorist organizations is unquestionably protected.) After months of pressure from FIRE, the school found the students not guilty of “incivility” on First Amendment grounds. What’s more, the subsequent lawsuit brought against SFSU by the students in federal court resulted in an opinion overturning the California State University system’s “civility” code.

Next, we cover cases where campus censorship has originated from the right side of the ideological spectrum, as conservatives, usually off-campus, try to go after speech they dislike. My regular Huffington Post readers will remember our case at the University of Maryland, I’m sure:

Students had planned an event which included a lecture from a Planned Parenthood representative, then a showing of Pirates II: Stagnetti’s Revenge, claimed to be the most expensive pornographic movie ever made. Such paired events are fairly common at campuses across the country and are often advertised to students, as this one was, as an alternative to drinking. Nevertheless, the university came under intense pressure from the Maryland Senate to cancel the showing, as state legislators introduced an amendment to a school funding bill that cut off funding to any state university that “sponsors, sanctions, promotes, endorses, or allows a public screening of any film that is marketed as a XXX-rated adult film.” The university promptly cancelled the event, apparently forgetting that Pirates II is likely protected under the First Amendment, that the school had aired pornographic films before, and that the event had a clearly educational component.

Finally, Will and I discuss the clampdown on orthodox religious speech and beliefs. I was especially pleased that Free Inquiry, a magazine of the Council for Secular Humanism, which describes itself as the “leading organization for non-religious people,” was interested in this topic. As a non-religious person myself, it can sometimes be hard to get my fellow non-believers to care when the rights of students to express religious views are threatened. And as we note in the piece, there are many, many examples of religious views and speech leading to official attempts at censorship and punishment. Here’s a particularly interesting one from 2004:

In 2004, the Christian Student Fellowship at Florida’s Indian River Community College was forbidden from showing Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ at a group meeting. The reason for forbidding a screening of the world’s highest grossing religious film of all time? The college claimed that the film was “controversial” and “R-rated.” But the college had allowed R-rated films to be screened in the past year. And at the same time the college banned The Passion of the Christ, it was hosting a student production that included a skit called “Fucking for Jesus,” which centered on masturbating to a painting of Jesus Christ.

So how do these three types of campus censorship affect atheists, agnostics, secular humanists and other Free Inquiry readers? For the long answer, I urge you to buy the magazine! But here’s the short answer: by shutting down speech–whether that speech is religious, atheist, conservative, liberal, or what-have-you–we teach students that the proper response to speech they find offensive is censorship, not an engaged debate. What we need to be teaching students to do is not only to tolerate speech they don’t like, but to jump into debates and encourage discussion of different points of view. If you think you are right and the other person is wrong, no harm in hearing them out, and who knows, maybe you’ll learn something in the process. But this process cannot take place in an atmosphere where the first reaction to dissenting opinions, challenging views, or uncomfortable discussions is to figure out a way to silence it.

And here’s another reason to pick up the latest issue of Free Inquiry: It contains an excellent article by my friend, the noted civil libertarian and lawyer Wendy Kaminer. Wendy’s article, entitled “Epistemic Closure — Left and Right,” asks some pointed questions: “Have facts ever been less relevant in political debates? Have fictions ever been harder to disprove?” In exploring possible answers, Wendy discusses some important cases FIRE has taken on recently, and draws the link between campus censorship and the increasing polarization of our national debate. It’s well worth your time.