Political Correctness May Be A Challenge To Campus Free Speech

August 31, 2015

By M.S. Butler at WUSF Public Media

Most people think of college campuses as places where students are challenged with new ideas, and new ways of thinking. But is political correctness not only threatening free speech, but also taking the humor out of it?

So,  how many college students does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Okay, that’s not a real joke.  But what if that’s just because college students today are too offended by the question?

Back in June comedian Jerry Seinfeld told ESPN radio that he was joining Chris Rock, Larry the Cable Guy and others who won’t play college campuses because they’ve become too politically correct.

“I hear that all the time,” Seinfeld said.  “I don’t play colleges but I hear a lot of people tell me don’t go near colleges—they’re so PC. They just want to use these words—‘that’s racist, that’s sexist, that’s prejudice.’”

Maybe comedians not wanting to play college campuses is not one of the most burning issues facing education today. But what if it says something more about free speech at colleges and universities?

Will Creeley is with the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education or FIRE. He says it’s a non-profit and non-partisan group founded to defend civil liberties on college campuses.

The foundation created a free-speech rating system of more than 400 schools nationwide, based on a traffic signal model. A green light means the institution has open and free speech, a yellow light means not enough or vague rules about speech and a red light means a school has at least one policy that they say is restrictive.

To see how your school fared, you can find the list here.

“Back in Spring 2013, Professor Hyung-il Jung at the University of Central Florida was suspended for three weeks after making an in-class joke,”Creeley said. “He was leading a review session for his twenty-five students in an accounting course and he noticed that their attention was starting to flag. And he said to the class, ‘this next question is very difficult. It looks like you guys are being slowly suffocated by these questions. Am I on a killing spree, or what?’”

Twenty-four students knew Jung was joking, but one filed a complaint.

The university ordered Jung to undergo a mental health evaluation before he would be allowed to return to teaching. After a petition from almost 500 students and the threat of a lawsuit from FIRE, the professor was reinstated.

Jung said by email “I have decided to remain silent, making no comments for many different reasons, at least for a while.”

“That’s part of the effect that first amendment attorneys call the ‘chilling effect’ on speech,” Creeley said. “That is, once you’ve been investigated, threatened with discipline, put through the ringer for telling a joke, you very rationally might decide that you better keep your mouth shut next time.”

So have college students become too sensitive?

David Thompson is a college freshman and a member of the Student Government Association at University of South Florida St. Petersburg .

“I think just in the way media works, that when somebody makes a big protest about something that that’s what’s going to be heard,”Thompson said.  “I think it’s really only offensive if somebody’s telling you that this is what you need to believe or that this is an accurate depiction of you.”

Thompson is right that in recent years the media have covered students protesting commencement speakers like former Secretary of State Condolezza Rice and comedian Bill Maher and others refusing assigned reading because of objectionable content like a depiction of rape.

“Increasingly FIRE is worried that students are demanding a kind of intellectual comfort rather than the thrill and productive challenge of going outside of their own known experience,” Creeley said.
“We have a saying here at FIRE. If you go to school for four years and aren’t once offended you should ask for your money back.”

But universities have a responsibility and a liability involved in protecting their students, right?

William Felice, is Associate Dean and Professor at Eckerd College> He says the do have a responsibility—but…
“We are past book burning when students come here, from day one we say to them you’re going to be exposed to different material and you may not like it,” Felice said.  “It may be uncomfortable but that’s part of the what the education process is about.”

So it may be about managing expectations and letting students know that this education may sting a little. But it’s not just offense without an end-game in mind.

“Our goal is to teach students to critically think and become good citizens as a result, able to contribute to public policy, able to sort out the difference between demagoguery and punditry and reasoned argument,” Felice said.  “That’s really what we’re about.”

And doing that could just cause students to rethink what’s funny and what’s offensive.