ROBBY SOAVE: Free Speech Stifled At Colleges

December 5, 2014

By Robby Soave at The Press Enterprise

It’s every college professor’s job to open students’ minds to new – often controversial – ideas.

But many college administrators are hard at work undermining these efforts, erecting unconstitutional barriers between students and viewpoints that might offend them.

The University of California-Davis provides a good example of a typical public university administration’s contempt for open discourse. Until last month, in order to register for classes, UC Davis students were obligated to complete an online activity, “Words that Hurt.” It required students to match several “problematic” words and phrases – like “I raped that exam,” or “I’d hit that” – with the correct explanation for why the word or phrase was deemed unsayable. Students didn’t have to complete the activity correctly, but they did have to finish it. There was no way to register dissent with the university’s bold assertions.

It’s one thing to educate students – perhaps in a sociology classroom – about harmful connotations of words. It’s quite another to require them to affirm those definitions as a condition of enrollment.

When only students who profess that the phrase “I’d hit that” has the effect of “minimizing the act of rape by making it sound like an achievement” are allowed to register for classes, the university is essentially policing the campus’ views. That violates the free speech guarantees of the First Amendment, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a civil liberties group.

FIRE caught wind of UC Davis’s “Words that Hurt” activity and promptly informed the university that it had run afoul of the Constitution. After initially defending the activity, administrators eventually conceded the point and agreed to drop it.

But how long would the policy have remained on the books had it gone unnoticed by free speech enthusiasts? How many other restrictive speech codes do campuses maintain in the dubious service of protecting the community from ideas deemed dangerous or harmful?

The unfortunate answer is that these policies are enforced at universities across the country, though they are nearly always defeated when challenged. Last summer, the University of Oregon disciplined a student for yelling, “I hit it first,” at a passing couple – an inappropriate remark, perhaps, but one vigorously protected by the First Amendment. And yet the student who uttered it faced separate disciplinary charges – one for each offensive word – until FIRE persuaded administrators to drop the matter.

Given the importance of a robust and uninhibited campus dialogue, one might expect institutions of higher education to offer stronger protections for free expression than those typically enjoyed elsewhere. Alas, this is not the case. FIRE’s research shows that more than 50 percent of American colleges violate the First Amendment in one way or another.

Indeed, where else but a university can one encounter a free speech zone: a tiny, depressing block of concrete – tucked away in some far corner of campus – to which students are expected to restrict their political activism. Students at several colleges have been exiled to these speech ghettos for engaging in activities as harmless as distributing free copies of the Constitution to pedestrians.

Given school administrators’ herculean efforts to shelter students from controversial or possibly offensive remarks, it’s no wonder that more and more teens are learning all the wrong lessons about speech – and believe they have the right not to encounter ideas that might upset their delicate feelings.

How else can one explain mobs of students cheering for the suppression of speakers as politically diverse as former Republican secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, International Monetary Fund President Christine Lagarde or, most recently, liberal comedian Bill Maher, whose provocative statements about radical Islam prompted UC Berkeley students to demand censorship?

Conservatives often claim that Ivory Tower academics are filling kids’ heads with far-left propaganda. But the administrators – whose ranks have swelled dramatically at virtually every university in the last two decades – pose a much greater danger to a free society than professors. Concerned parties should be on the watch for speech codes in the UC system and elsewhere, lest an entire generation of young people finish college and enter the real world expecting to be protected from “words that hurt.”

Schools: University of California, Davis Cases: University of California, Davis: Mandatory Violence Prevention Program Violates Students’ Freedom of Conscience