The University of Michigan vs. the First Amendment: James Varney

February 9, 2015

By James Varney at

As an Ohioan by blood, I know some awful things have come out of the University of Michigan. The very word “Michigan” is one I strive not to use in polite conversation.

Ironically, it’s now Michigan that’s going to war with language. The school has spent $16,000 on an “inclusive language” campaign that seeks to make certain words and phrases forbidden.

It’s remarkable that, years after Michael Scott exposed the word on “The Office,”left-wing hotbeds still need to spend thousands telling students they shouldn’t say “retarded.”

Nevertheless, there is such a thing as free speech and the University of Michigan is a public institution. If an undergraduate wants to go around calling other people “retarded” that student should be free to do so, just as other students would then be free to consider that classmate a fool and someone to avoid. Then the stupid speaker would be a loner heading over to the mental health clinic and we’d be talking about more teenage suicide prevention money.

In that case, however, the student-turned-pariah through his ill chosen words might prove a difficult diagnosis. That’s because you’re not supposed to say, “I want to die,” at UM.

Other words are problematic in the constantly shifting sands of a politically correct campus. For example, is “gay” now out of bounds? Isn’t that the correct term for someone who, sexually, prefers members of their own sex?

Obviously one shouldn’t use “gay” as a putdown. Even at Michigan, it’s probably out of bounds to call an Ohio State player “gay” (a bright line I’d wager is crossed more regularly on premier Alabama campuses).

Here’s the thing, though: that’s a welcome development and it’s not one created by silence. Calling someone a “raghead,” to take another word Ann Arbor would exclude, reflects badly on the speaker and does nothing to make a point or advance an argument – two skills college presumably develops. But that’s a lesson learned through speech, not by banning it.

An “inclusive speech” campaign is basically speech code light. Whenever people start talking about “offensive” words, as some Michigan students promoting the campaign have, a small totalitarian step is being taken.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (F.I.R.E), which has helped keep the First Amendment on life support at many American colleges, already grades the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor as a “red light” school for having “at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.” Why add another?

Schools: University of Michigan – Ann Arbor