Free speech on campus

March 24, 2005

LET’S DISPENSE with some tangents right off. It’s a bad idea for teachers to spank students. There’s evidence that women are not innately handicapped when it comes to math and science. And it’s offensive hyperbole to cast the World Trade Center victims of the 9/11 attacks as “little Eichmanns.”

But that aside, we don’t have any problems with a student writing a school paper supporting corporal punishment, a university president raising the issue of possible gender differences, and a professor espousing radical ideas. In fact, our society and our universities are better off if faculty and students are allowed to freely speak out.This is hardly a bold stance. But unfortunately these days, free expression is not so universally respected on campuses. So the obvious needs restating: America’s colleges have a rich history as free markets for ideas – a role that must be sustained.

In recent years, more and more faculty and students appear to have been running into trouble for expressing their views, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which investigates such cases. Colleges have adopted “free-speech codes,” which often bar speech if listeners are offended – contradicting the First Amendment. They’ve also established “free-speech zones,” which can limit free expression elsewhere. When such issues arise at public colleges, politicians have been jumping in with funding threats and proposals to define academic freedoms.

Last week, Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences gave its president, Lawrence Summers, a vote of no confidence, the first such vote in the school’s 369-year history; it may have gone against Mr. Summers because of his management problems, but it was triggered by his comments about women. This week in Colorado, an investigation of university professor Ward Churchill’s credentials is to be released, a probe prompted by his comments about the 9/11 victims. Ironically, in both cases, addressing any legitimate problems is now more difficult because of the attacks on Mr. Summers’ and Mr. Churchill’s views.

Apart from these high-profile cases, what really grabbed our attention – and what may be more typical of the pressures against free speech on campuses these days – is the case of a graduate student kicked out of school this year by New York’s Le Moyne College because of a paper in which he advocated corporal punishment and criticized so-called multiculturalism. Scott McConnell got an A- on his paper on the “ideal classroom” and high grades in his other courses, and was rated excellent by his mentor as a student teacher, an assignment in which he did not strike pupils. It also should be noted that spanking students, while banned in New York, is allowed in more than 20 states. Mr. McConnell essentially was punished for advocating a change in New York law.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education substantiates dozens of such cases each year, says David French, its president. That reflects troubling shifts in the mission of colleges, from exploring ideas to imparting set truths, from treating free speech as an asset to viewing it as a potential problem, from advancing new or unpopular ideas to repressing them – all shifts boding poorly for the long-term strength of American higher education. Free speech ought not to be in question on U.S. campuses.

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Schools: Harvard University University of Colorado at Boulder Le Moyne College Cases: University of Colorado at Boulder: Investigation of Professor for Controversial Essay Le Moyne College: Dismissal of Student for Dissenting Views