Colleges value civility over free expression

February 8, 2005

Write about free speech on American college campuses occasionally, and you quickly come to realize that a good many people honor the concept mostly in the breach. Every column defending free expression generates a number of emails with this basic message: Of course I support free speech, I just don’t think someone should be allowed to say that.

The anti-speech sentiment is not always couched quite that explicitly, of course.

Usually the caveat is about the need to realize just how hurtful a controversial statement is to this group or that, whose self-image or self-confidence or self-worth will be irreparably injured by hearing or seeing something that offends or angers them.

Indeed, when I did a column about the University of New Hampshire’s absurd disciplinary action against a male student who put up a satirical poster suggesting that the women in his dorm might avoid the dreaded freshman-year weight gain if they took the stairs rather than using the elevator, even his mild jape, directed at no person in particular, invoked the same response.

You don’t know what it’s like to have someone make snide comments about your weight, replied some readers. (Actually, I do, having recently been denounced as a fat, pizza-gobbling ”pantload” by one of the coruscating philosopher kings of the local talk-radio scene. That, apparently, is what passes as wit on talk radio, and in the spirit of the new year, I’d certainly grant that it’s half-witty.)

My feeling is that people need to grow a little thicker skin if they expect to survive in this world. And that if colleges operate the way the PC gendarmerie prefer, they aren’t preparing students for the real world so much as sheltering them from it.

Unfortunately, however, too often the prevalent notion on campus is that people have a right not to be offended, and that that right, and the goal of preserving an amorphous civility, should trump the right to free expression.

David French, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit devoted to defending free speech on campus, says the foundation frequently encounters that sentiment among college administrators and faculty.

”One of the most common experiences we have at FIRE is for an administrator or a faculty member to pledge undying loyalty to the First Amendment even while they are censoring a student,” said French. ”They claim to support free speech, and if you put them on truth serum I think they would still claim to, but they think if a person’s feelings are hurt, speech has just gone too far.”

Harvard University President Larry Summers encountered that same sort of mentality in the recent brouhaha he sparked by mentioning – not embracing, mind you, but merely mentioning – theories than men and women have different innate abilities when it comes to science and math.

Demonstrating yet again that on today’s campuses the distance from mildly provocative statement to absurd overreaction is a short step indeed, MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins told the Globe that she had to leave the room for fear she would have ”blacked out or thrown up” if she stayed.

Now Summers, as university president, obviously won’t be punished for what he said – though the National Organization for Women made itself look ridiculous by calling for his resignation – but he certainly appears to have been neutered as a freethinker. He has now issued apologies almost beyond enumeration for offending against the prevailing orthodoxy.

Watching the uproar that ensued, one could only imagine the plight of a mere student who had broached an opinion that contravened the dogma of the academic majority.

”They talk in terms of diversity and multiculturalism, but they are incredibly intolerant of real diversity,” says Harvey Silverglate, Boston’s doughty crusader for real academic freedom and FIRE’s co-founder. ”They want a campus where everyone looks different, but thinks the same.”

Silverglate, whose organization has helped reveal the academy’s insidious encroachment on free speech, estimates that 85 to 90 percent of American colleges and universities have some sort of speech code. They aren’t called that, of course; that would be too blatant.

Instead, they usually masquerade as anti-harassment rules. ”But when you classify harassment as anything that disturbs anybody else, you have a speech code, just by another name,” Silverglate observes.

Still, it can be hard for the uninitiated to detect a speech code – and harder still for a student or faculty member caught up in an Orwellian disciplinary process to fight it.

That’s where FIRE comes into play. The nonprofit foundation that Silverglate and others started several years ago has just published a superb new book, ”FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus.”

Written by Silverglate, French, and Greg Lukianoff, the foundation’s director of public and legal advocacy, the guide offers an informative historical overview of the right of free speech, the many aspects of expression, the various relevant court decisions, and what they mean.

It’s a first-rate primer, one that every college administrator and professor should take time to read.

They won’t, of course. And that’s why the second section is so valuable.

There, the authors step smartly through the different ways colleges and universities have gone about suppressing speech, using examples drawn from the battles FIRE has been involved in around the country.

The foundation will send a free copy to any student who requests one (you can do so online at Or the guide can be downloaded from FIRE’s website. It is also available from

In this day and age, it’s a volume every student needs to have in his bookcase, just in case he or she encounters a college administrator who supports free speech in theory – but just can’t tolerate it in practice.

Schools: Harvard University