You Can’t Say That Here — This Is a University!

November 2, 2010

by A. Barton Hinkle

Richmond Times-Dispatch

Teresa Sullivan has been in the president’s office for only a brief period, but the University of Virginia already has made a tremendous improvement on her watch. The Foundation for Individ ual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organization dedicated to protecting free speech on campus, reports that it has conferred its green-light award on Mr. Jefferson’s university.

UVa thereby becomes one of only 13 colleges in the nation — William & Mary is another — to receive the rare designation, which the Charlottesville school earned by revising its egregious speech codes. Those speech codes (which had qualified UVa for a “red alert” from FIRE) had a chilling effect on open discourse by threatening students with punishment for making constitutionally protected utterances.

Free speech is one of those values to which everyone gives lip service. Nearly no one considers himself pro-censorship. Yet as FIRE has exhaustively documented, institutions of higher learning — which ought to welcome freewheeling intellectual debate — often are among the most censorious and oppressive places in America. And unfortunately, a few of the worst offenders are right here in Virginia.

For instance, although James Madison University asserts that students have the right to free speech, it also insists “free speech and peaceful assemblies must be registered with Madison Union Scheduling at least 48 hours in advance.” Anyone hoping to compile a List of Incredible Oxymorons surely would have to begin with “free speech by permit only.”

But JMU is nothing compared with Virginia Tech, which continues to flirt with totalitarian impulses. Witness the attempt earlier this year to shut down the student newspaper because of anonymous comments posted on its website. That episode followed the drafting of a diversity policy for the college of arts and humanities that amounted to an ideological loyalty oath, and that read almost like a parody of leftist identity politics. (It managed to shoehorn in every warmed-over multicultural cliché from “socially constructed differences” to “systems of power” to “hierarchy and privilege.”)

The proposal, along with a letter from the provost, made it clear that professors hoping to enjoy a fruitful career would have to “do a better job of participating in and documenting their involvement in diversity initiatives” — an effort deemed “especially important for candidates seeking promotion to full professor.” They could do this by, inter alia, participating in “self-education” (no mention of re-education, but you get the idea) and revising their course curricula to promote a stridently hard-left line.

Opposition from inside and outside Tech eventually forced administrators to back down. But the school still maintains a reporting system for “incidents of prejudice,” free-speech-zone rules, and forbids the use of school computers for “unwarranted annoyance.”

Yet when it comes to Orwellian regulation of thoughtcrime, Tech remains a rank amateur next to George Mason University. GMU maintains a speech code that prohibits “any form of bigotry . . . . whether verbal, written, psychological, direct, or implied.” (Emphasis added.)

In the hothouse of the modern university, where psyches are as fragile as orchids, it is not hard to imagine what might qualify as implied psychological bigotry: just about anything. Consider that when Sarah Palin referred to Barack Obama as “professor,” Harvard’s Charles Ogletree termed her comments — wait for it! — racist. Professor, apparently, is code for uppity. Thomas Haskell, a prof . . . er, instructor — at Rice University agreed, suggesting the public might be “especially” frightened by such rhetoric “because this particular intellectual [Obama] is black.” A couple of years ago, the College Republicans at San Francisco State University were hauled up on charges and accused of “incivility” and “intimidation” because they held an anti-terrorism rally in which they invited people to walk on the flags of Hamas and Hezbollah, two terrorist organizations. If this is the threshhold for perceived bigotry, then just imagine how, say, a student cartoon mocking the proposed Cordoba mosque in Manhattan might go over.

But it doesn’t end there. GMU also insists that students get permission before chalking a message on a sidewalk. What’s more: “The sale, distribution, or solicitation of any . . . newspaper by GMU and non-GMU organizations and individuals is subject to prior authorization.” Taken together, such policies give GMU officials a blank slate to control what members of the university community can say and hear on campus.

This, mind you, at a school named after a man who is called “The Father of the Bill of Rights.”

All of the schools above are public universities, which makes their speech codes acts of state-sponsored censorship. UVa has taken the right step by relaxing its speech codes. It’s time for the rest of Virginia’s public colleges to do the same.

One of the quickest ways to find out if you are wrong is to state what you believe. –Penn Jillette.

View this article at Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Schools: University of Virginia James Madison University George Mason University Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University