Speech Crimes on Campus

December 9, 2015

By Staff at The Wall Street Journal

The student censors at Yale claimed a scalp—pardon the micro-aggression—this week when lecturer Erika Christakis resigned her teaching position on childhood education. She had been pilloried for asking in an email if students weren’t too sensitive if they are offended by politically incorrect Halloween costumes.

Yale’s powers-that-be ducked and covered in response, but the news on campus isn’t all bad, according to a forthcoming report by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (Fire). The foundation’s annual survey of 440 colleges—comprising 336 four-year public and 104 private institutions—finds that the share of schools maintaining “severely restrictive” speech codes has dropped to below 50% (49.3%) for the first time in the organization’s history. As many as three-quarters of colleges boasted restrictive speech codes in 2007 and 55% did as of last year.

Another positive sign: The number of schools receiving Fire’s highest “green light” rating has nearly tripled since 2006 to 22, up from 18 last year. These beacons include Purdue University, the University of Virginia and University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. More than twice as many colleges have received ratings upgrades as downgrades this year.

Some colleges have reaffirmed, in principle, their commitment to free speech. In January the University of Chicago endorsed “the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas” are perceived as offensive. Princeton adopted a similar resolution in April while Johns Hopkins in September identified “free and independent inquiry” as one of its “core principles.”

The state of Missouri this year enacted the Campus Free Expression Act barring public colleges from restricting speech to prescribed zones on campus. Ironically, University of Missouri protesters this fall benefitted from this First Amendment protection while seeking to muzzle (and muscle) dissident voices. As the conflagration of free speech at Mizzou showed, colleges often contravene the law and their stated principles.

Princeton prohibits “offensive” sexual comments while Johns Hopkins forbids “rude, disrespectful behavior.” At Boise State University, students may not publish, display or transmit “inappropriate or offensive material.” That could apply to just about every student’s Facebook page and Instagram.

The University of South Dakota proscribes bullying, which—don’t laugh—is loosely defined as “teasing, making fun of, laughing at or harassing someone over time.” Middlebury College’s code of civility censures “flagrant disrespect for persons.” Wesleyan even grants students “the right to be protected against actions that may be harmful to the health or emotional stability of the individual.”

Trigger warning: The First Amendment protects offensive, distasteful and derisive remarks. Public colleges can’t punish micro-aggressions any more than the Justice Department can prosecute Donald Trump’s oafish comments. While private institutions may promulgate restrictive codes of conduct, doing so chills free expression and inquiry. These have long been the bedrocks of higher education.

Censorship on campus will take time to beat back, but the latest Fire report shows that opposition is showing some progress. We’re glad to have them on the case.

Schools: University of Virginia University of South Dakota University of North Carolina – Charlotte Johns Hopkins University University of Chicago Princeton University University of Missouri – Columbia Purdue University Yale University Cases: University of Missouri: Policing of “Hurtful” Speech Yale University: Protesters at Yale Threaten Free Speech, Demand Apologies and Resignations from Faculty Members Over Halloween Email