Regulating Speech on Campus

August 13, 2015

By Cynthia M. Allen at Star Telegram

Earlier this year, Harry Vincent, a sophomore at Texas Christian University, got some surprising news.

He had been effectively suspended from school for a year — allowed to attend classes but prohibited from participating in any social activities and from living on campus. He was also ordered to serve 60 hours of community service, attend diversity and sensitivity training, and to meet biweekly with the associate dean of students, presumably to endure routine shaming for his offense.

What was his transgression?

Inappropriate tweeting.

Vincent had made comments on Twitter and Facebook that caused offense to at least one reader, and she reportedly felt compelled to rally others to join her in complaining to TCU.

School administrators reviewed Vincent’s tweets, which a reasonable person might consider provocative at most (several commented on the recent Baltimore riots and ISIS, and one used a slur for Mexicans that Vincent has since pleaded ignorance about and apologized for using), and determined the student’s actions warranted punishment. Severe punishment.

To be clear, Vincent’s comments were certainly regrettable, and posting them on Twitter was probably ill-advised. But worthy of suspension? Hardly.

College students are notorious for saying and doing stupid things; campus life creates an environment that facilitates both. And social media now gives them an additional venue to preserve unfortunate remarks and share them with a far broader audience.

But this story really isn’t about social media.

It’s about a strange and troubling phenomenon that’s sweeping college campuses. It’s a movement, driven largely by students but blessed and often enforced by administrators, to restrict language and ideas that cause offense and to make an example, sometimes by way of harsh punishments, of the offenders.

And all this is to the detriment of free speech and learning.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) — a free speech group that came to Vincent’s defense and may have aided the reduction of his punishment — has cataloged dozens of similar incidents.

A case last year at the University of Tulsa involved the suspension of student George “Trey” Barnett for comments made by his husband, who was not a TU student, on Facebook. The comments criticized two faculty members.

Similarly, in their book End of Discussion, authors Mary Katherine Ham and Guy Benson relay a series of vignettes.

One tells the story of a college deejay in Chapel Hill, N.C., who was fired for playing the popular song Blurred Lines, which some modern feminists have called a “rape anthem.” But as Ham explained during a recent radio interview, the song didn’t actually offend anyone. The DJ was terminated because a listener complained about the possibility that it might.

While private universities have some latitude in regulating speech on campus, and arguably have an interest in creating an environment where, in the words of TCU, students should “behave in a manner consistent with [the school’s] mission,” shouldn’t part of a school’s mission be to allow students to express themselves and engage in honest dialogue with the ultimate goal of furthering more sophisticated thinking and eventually learning to temper and refine words on their own?

These policies and punishments are having a chilling effect on students, but they may have more significant consequences.

Writing in The Atlantic, constitutional lawyer Greg Lukianoff and psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who call the speech restrictive movement “vindictive protectiveness,” lament that the presumed “extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche,” coupled with university administrators who are only too eager to institutionalize speech codes and punish violators, may be discouraging students from thinking critically.

Instead, vindictive protectiveness is teaching students to think pathologically and is poorly preparing them for professional life — frankly, for any existence beyond the protective university walls.

Lukianoff and Haidt offer a series of solutions to combat the intellectual disservice done by too harshly regulating speech, which includes raising consciousness of the need to balance free speech with a welcoming environment and equipping students with the tools they need to “thrive in a world full of words and ideas that they cannot control.”

The government, too, has a role to play. The authors suggest that it “release universities from their fear of unreasonable investigation and sanctions” that arguably catalyze the kind of punishments we have seen at schools such as TCU.

While some words don’t warrant defense, the right to say them almost always does. And nowhere should that be more true than on college campuses. How else will these students ever learn?

Schools: Texas Christian University Cases: Texas Christian University: Student Suspended for Social Media Posts