Civil Anti-Libertarians

January 14, 2008

My mother believed firmly in civility: “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything,” she plaintively advised; but even she didn’t take this maxim literally.  My mother was smarter and more tolerant of dissent than a lot of college administrators today, who seem to regard graciousness as the highest educational value.  You’d think they were running charm schools, instead of institutes of higher learning.
As the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and Volokh report, Bergen Community College officials have drafted a comprehensive, mandatory civility pledge in the form of a “code of responsibility.”  You have to read it to believe it:

"In the full knowledge of the commitment that I am freely willing to undertake as a student, I promise to respect each and every member of the college community without regard to race, creed, political ideology, lifestyle orientation, gender or social status sparing no effort to preserve the dignity of those I will come in contact with as a member of the college community. I promise to Bergen Community College that I will follow this code of responsibility.

        1. Honesty, integrity and respect for all will guide my personal conduct.

        2. I will embrace and celebrate differing perspectives intellectually.

        3. I will build an inclusive community enriched by diversity.

        4. I am willing to respect and assist those individuals who are less fortunate.

        5. I promise my commitment to civic engagement and to serve the needs of the community to the best of my ability."

This code was not intended to be advisory: students who violated it, presumably by offending any member of the community, would be subject to disciplinary proceedings. “The pledge would not be optional,” college spokeswoman Susan Baechtel, has said. “If you don’t agree, it is President Ryan’s vision that you cannot attend the school.”
President Ryan is apparently blind to the fact that in America, and at public colleges like BCC, people enjoy freedom of speech and conscience, which means that they cannot be compelled to respect each other or to refrain from expressing their disrespect.  Besides, it’s hard to imagine this code being enforced indiscriminately.  Would students be punished for disrespecting the views of neo-Nazis, or even neo-conservatives who mock affirmative action? 

If President Ryan actually believes what this code implies — that students should be taught that all political ideologies, creeds and “lifestyle orientations” are equal, and demand equal respect – then his “vision” of higher education is stupefying.  Students are supposed to be taught that all ideas are not equal; they’re supposed to learn how to judge the merits of different and conflicting ideas and how to back up their judgments with reason.  Mindless respect for all points of view is not an element of critical thinking.
What has inspired this absurdly overbroad, anti-libertarian code?  College officials point to an increase in boorish, threatening, racist behavior—in other words, the sort of behavior that students should disrespect.  And, spokeswoman Baechtel has noted that the code was also a reaction to campus violence, mainly the murders at Virginia Tech. “Virginia Tech is starting to frame our thoughts on this.”

Fear of violence is understandable, of course, but the belief that it might be deterred by a civility code is nonsensical.  Does Baechtel imagine that a mentally ill student intent on mass murder would stop to consider the rudeness of his plan or hesitate to break a rule?
Fortunately, BCC faculty members were quick to protest this code; it has generated a little bad publicity, and the administration is equivocating.  (By now President Ryan should realize that his plan is unconstitutional as well as controversial.)  But the civility movement proceeds, threatening free speech and free thought, not just on campus.  Students imbued with excessive deference for civility may be ill-equipped to participate in the uncivil arenas of democracy and social change.  There, they’ll they need respect for liberty.

Schools: Bergen Community College