Free Speech, Political Correctness Struggle To Coexist On Campus

December 22, 2014

By Michael Barone at The Washington Examiner

The total discrediting of Rolling Stone’s story on rape at the University of Virginia has shined a light on one of the least palatable features of American life: the so-called epidemic of rape on campus.

Authorities from Barack Obama on down have cited the phony statistic that one in five college women is raped. Phony, because it’s based on a 2007 survey conducted at two Midwestern schools, not of a random sample, but of a small number of self-selected respondents. The study also includes unwanted touching and kissing in its broad definition of “sexual assault.”

A Department of Justice survey released this month presents a different picture. Between 1995 and 2013, it reports, an average of 0.61 percent of female students were raped or sexually assaulted every year — 2.4 percent over four years, not 20 percent. Moreover, DOJ reports, that rate has been declining significantly in recent years, in line with a national decline in rape.

In other words, there is no suddenly raging epidemic of rape on campus. Nevertheless, colleges and universities have been scampering to comply with mandates from the Obama Department of Education to set up procedures in which campus administrators, with no legal training, act as investigators, prosecutors, judges, juries and executioners.

Accused students are not allowed to have lawyers or to confront witnesses, and legal rules of evidence do not apply. State legislatures have passed or are considering laws requiring schools to adopt (and many schools are adopting) a “yes means yes” standard, requiring express consent at each stage of a sexual encounter.

These kangaroo courts can and do expel male students, putting a blot on their records for life. No wonder dozens of them are suing universities and getting big cash settlements. No wonder 28 current and retired Harvard law professors signed a letter calling such processes “deeply unfair and undemocratic.”

Some day, I suspect, this frenzy will be seen as akin to the hysteria over satanic abuse in day care centers in the 1980s. Many people went to jail over utterly fraudulent charges based on bogus psychological research, akin to the Salem witch trials.

It’s not surprising, however, that these abusive frenzies have taken hold at the nation’s colleges and universities. Increasingly, they are our society’s least free, least fair and least honest institutions.

Consider campus speech codes. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) reports that 58 percent of the 427 colleges and universities it monitors have speech codes banning or penalizing speech that is protected by the First Amendment in America generally.

The good news is that the number of speech codes is declining, partly in response to FIRE’s advocacy and lawsuits. The bad news is that the Obama Education Department continues to use threats to cut off funding to coerce universities to ban “sexual harassment,” defined as “any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.” As FIRE notes, “This is an overbroad definition that is not in accordance with the First Amendment.”

The rationale for speech codes? Usually it is that students, especially racial minorities and women, should not encounter anything offensive on campus. Administrators evidently believe that people should not be allowed to express thoughts someone else doesn’t want to hear. The authors of the First Amendment had a different idea.

A third way in which universities and colleges are corrupted is in the widespread resort to racial quotas and preferences — literally, racial discrimination — in admissions to selective institutions.

Administrators do not admit they are discriminating by race. That would, among other things, violate the letter of the Civil Rights Act. But everyone knows they are using “holistic” standards to admit more blacks and Hispanics (and thus fewer Asians and whites) than they would under the criteria they admit to using. They evidently feel that “diversity” justifies discriminating by race and lying about it.

Kangaroo courts, speech codes, racial discrimination: I suspect some older readers cannot believe such practices have become standard operating procedure at American colleges and universities — indeed, the major focus of many administrators, who now outnumber teachers on the nation’s campuses.

Historically, universities and colleges saw themselves as havens of free speech and fair play, insulated from the larger society to protect those things from interference. Now they insulate themselves in order to violate due process, suppress speech and discriminate by race.

There’s still some good scholarship and teaching on campus. But it exists, uneasily, amid a culture of lying and intellectual corruption.

Schools: University of Virginia Cases: FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project