Attacking speech at RIC

August 31, 2004

A FRIEND of mine is in the middle of the bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran. It’s the story of a teacher in Iran who meets in secret with seven students to read forbidden Western texts — all the time fearing raids by Islamic morality squads who are out to enforce ideological conformity and purge wayward professors.

I’d like to believe that this ugly side of human nature — the will to force everyone to think and believe alike, for the common “good” — is a problem confined to the Islamic world, far from the land of liberty. But something akin to it, it is sad to see, is transpiring on our own college campuses. Our own morality squads also believe they are doing the Lord’s work in curbing speech, but they are doing more harm than good in undermining the role of colleges as places of free inquiry.

The chill wind of intolerance has now apparently reached Rhode Island College.

There, a professor named Lisa B. Church must face hearings — and the potential of disciplinary action — for failing to punish two women for expressing their opinions in a private conversation. Under the First Amendment, they would seem to have that right to speak, even to say offensive things, without being punished by a government institution such as RIC.

The details are somewhat sketchy, but it seems that, last Feb. 19, three student mothers whose children were enrolled in RIC’s preschool started bickering about race and politics. Two of the mothers allegedly castigated interracial relationships and complained that the rights of some races were valued over those of whites. One of the mothers reportedly stormed off and would not accept apologies.

Where does Ms. Church, a professor of accounting and computer-information services, come in? In addition to her teaching duties, she was the coordinator for the cooperative preschool. So she was made responsible for discussions taking place among mothers at the preschool, even though she was not there when the conversation in question took place.

Since the First Amendment protects free speech, Professor Church suggested an attempt at mediation among the parties and a sensitivity-training session for the staff. (Why the staff needed it is not clear.) That apparently was not good enough.

As Ms. Church told an advocacy group, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Scott Kane, an associate dean for student life at RIC, informed her she was being accused of violating RIC’s policy on Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action, which states that the college “recognizes a higher order responsibility to create, promote and ensure a positive environment where individuals may learn, teach and work free from discrimination.”

RIC’s director of affirmative action, Patricia Giammarco, explained to her in an e-mail: “The college has a zero-tolerance policy for any kind of discrimination” and “on the college campus, certain types of remarks will not be tolerated, no matter what the intent.” But how a private opinion — which, however mean and wrongheaded, carried no force of action — became discrimination was not explained.

I think I understand RIC President John Nazarian’s fondness for a speech code. In a diverse society, it is crucial that we work together to make people from all backgrounds feel as welcome as possible. It is noble to wish to create an atmosphere of mutual tolerance and respect.

But there are ways to do that without resorting to intolerance. One problem with restricting speech is that it puts officials in the place of the all-knowing God, with a lock on truth — a role for which many college presidents believe themselves eminently qualified, but which no human can safely assume.

Human nature being what it is, we have a tendency to view all opinions that clash with our own as motivated by evil. Speech codes in universities thus tend to reel out of control. They have been used, for example, to punish people for holding quite mainstream views that seem intolerably gauche in the setting of the campus world, where far-left ideology is preached relentlessly and taken to represent the norm.

In reality, it is only through arguments, the ceaseless testing of ideas against other ideas, that something resembling truth can emerge. Clearly, societies that encourage robust discussions are those most apt to promote human rights and tolerance of diversity. And, as any reader of these pages knows, it is often necessary to offend someone in order to encourage changes that serve the public.

When we recognize a “higher order responsibility” to prohibit opinions that might offend someone, we prepare students for a fantasy world they will never occupy. It would serve young people better to allow them to disagree, to argue, to support each other, and make the case forcefully against stupidity. The blunt instrument of power is not needed to silence foolish opinions. Shaming will often do it. Indeed, the use of power to force opinions underground, where they can fester, often has unintended consequences.

Tormenting a teacher for failing to violate the First Amendment, as RIC appears to be doing by holding “fact-finding” hearings against her, seems a particularly egregious attempt to chill free speech. The morality squads at RIC need to rethink that one.

Schools: Rhode Island College Cases: Rhode Island College: Punishment of Professor for Refusal to Censor Speech