Table of Contents

This article appeared in Reason.

In 2007 a student working his way through college was found guilty of racial harassment for reading a book in public. Some of his co-workers had been offended by the book's cover, which included pictures of men in white robes and peaked hoods along with the tome's title, Notre Dame vs. the Klan. The student desperately explained that it was an ordinary history book, not a racist tract, and that it in fact celebrated the defeat of the Klan in a 1924 street fight. Nonetheless, the school, without even bothering to hold a hearing, found the student guilty of "openly reading [a] book related to a historically and racially abhorrent subject."

The incident would seem far-fetched in a Philip Roth novel-or a Philip K. Dick novel, for that matter-but it actually happened to Keith John Sampson, a student and janitor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indiana-polis. Despite the intervention of both the American Civil Liberties Union and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE, where I am president), the case was hardly a blip on the media radar for at least half a year after it took place.

Compare that lack of attention with the response to the now-legendary 1993 "water buffalo incident" at the University of Pennsylvania, where a student was brought up on charges of racial harassment for yelling "Shut up, you water buffalo!" out his window. His outburst was directed at members of a black sorority who were holding a loud celebration outside his dorm. Penn's effort to punish the student was covered by Time, Newsweek, The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The Financial Times, The New Republic, NPR, and NBC Nightly News, for starters. Commentators from Garry Trudeau to Rush Limbaugh agreed that Penn's actions warranted mockery. Hating campus political correctness was hotter than grunge rock in the early 1990s. Both the Democratic president and the Republican Congress condemned campus speech codes. California passed a law to invalidate Stanford's onerous speech rules, and comedians and public intellectuals alike decried collegiate censorship.

So what happened? Why does a case like the one involving Sampson's Klan book, which is even crazier than the "water buffalo" story that was an international scandal 15 years ago, now barely produce a national shrug?

For many, the topic of political correctness feels oddly dated, like a debate over the best Nirvana album. There is a popular perception that P.C. was a battle fought and won in the 1990s. Campus P.C. was a hot new thing in the late 1980s and early '90s, but by now the media have come to accept it as a more or less harmless, if unfortunate, byproduct of higher education.

But it is not harmless. With so many examples of censorship and administrative bullying, a generation of students is getting four years of dangerously wrongheaded lessons about both their own rights and the importance of respecting the rights of others. Diligently applying the lessons they are taught, students are increasingly turning on each other, and trying to silence fellow students who offend them. With schools bulldozing free speech in brazen defiance of legal precedent, and with authoritarian restrictions surrounding students from kindergarten through graduate school, how can we expect them to learn anything else?

Throwing the Book at Speech Codes

One reason people assume political correctness is dead is that campus speech codes-perhaps the most reviled symbol of P.C.-were soundly defeated in every single legal challenge brought against them from 1989 to 1995. At two universities in Michigan, at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Connecticut, at Stanford, speech codes crumbled in court. And of the 13 legal challenges launched since 2003 against codes that FIRE has deemed unconstitutional, each and every one has been successful. Given the vast differences across judges and jurisdictions, a 13-0 winning streak is, to say the least, an accomplishment.

Yet FIRE has determined that 71 percent of the 375 top colleges still have policies that severely restrict speech. And the problem isn't limited to campuses that are constitutionally bound to respect free expression. The overwhelming majority of universities, public and private, promise incoming students and professors academic freedom and free speech. When such schools turn around and attempt to limit those students' and instructors' speech, they reveal themselves as hypocrites, susceptible not only to rightful public ridicule but also to lawsuits based on their violations of contractual promises.

FIRE defines a speech code as any campus regulation that punishes, forbids, heavily regulates, or restricts a substantial amount of protected speech, or what would be protected speech in society at large. Some of the codes currently in force include "free speech zones." The policy at the University of Cincinnati, for example, limits protests to one area of campus, requires advance scheduling even within that area, and threatens criminal trespassing charges for anyone who violates the policy. Other codes promise a pain-free world, such as Texas Southern University's ban on attempting to cause "emotional," "mental," or "verbal harm," which includes "embarrassing, degrading or damaging information, assumptions, implications, [and] remarks" (emphasis added). The code at Texas A&M prohibits violating others' "rights" to "respect for personal feelings" and "freedom from indignity of any type."

Many universities also have wildly overbroad policies on computer use. Fordham, for example, prohibits using any email message to "insult" or "embarrass," while Northeastern University tells students they may not send any message that "in the sole judgment of the University" is "annoying" or "offensive."

Vague racial and sexual harassment codes remain the most common kinds of campus speech restrictions. Murray State University, for example, bans "displaying sexual and/or derogatory comments about men/women on coffee mugs, hats, clothing, etc." (What is it like to be sexually harassed by a coffee mug?) The University of Idaho bans "communication" that is "insensitive." New York University prohibits "insulting, teasing, mocking, degrading, or ridiculing another person or group," as well as "inappropriate...comments, questions, [and] jokes." Davidson College's sexual harassment policy still prohibits the use of "patronizing remarks," including referring to an adult as "girl," "boy," "hunk," "doll," "honey," or "sweetie." It also bars "comments or inquiries about dating."

Before it was changed under pressure from FIRE, the residence life program at the University of Delaware, which applied to all 7,000 students in the dormitories, included a code that described "oppressive" speech as a crime on the same level of urgency as rape. Not content to limit speech, the program also informed resident assistants that "all whites are racists" and that it was the university's job to heal them, required students to participate in floor events that publically shamed participants with "incorrect" political beliefs, and forced students to fill out questionnaires about what races and sexes they would date, with the goal of changing their idea of their own sexual identity. (These activities were described in the university's materials as "treatments.") These were just the lowlights among a dozen other illegal invasions of privacy, free speech, and conscience.

Until 2007 Western Michigan University's harassment policy banned "sexism," which it defined as "the perception and treatment of any person, not as an individual, but as a member of a category based on sex." I am unfamiliar with any other attempt by a public institution to ban a perception, let alone perceiving that a person is a man or woman. Even public restrooms violate this rule, which may help explain why the university finally abandoned it.

Needless to say, ridiculous codes produce ridiculous prosecutions. In 2007, at Brandeis University, the administration found politics professor Donald Hindley guilty of racial harassment for using the word wetback in his Latin American politics class. Why had Hindley employed such an epithet? To explain its origins and to decry its use.

Even if it were true, as defensive administrators often claim, that these policies are rarely enforced, their omnipresence would still pose a serious problem on its own. These codes not only chill free expression by warning students of serious consequences for controversial speech-or even normal, everyday speech-but they also systematically miseducate kids to believe that free speech goes only as far as the most sensitive person in the room can handle.

Free Inquiry, but Not Too Free

College students are placed in an unenviable position. They are constantly urged to argue, debate, discuss, question, and analyze the most important issues of the day, but they also often know stories of other students who were punished for taking the "wrong side" of an argument.

Consider the recent trend of colleges cracking down on students for advocating, or in some cases just joking about, gun rights. In April a student at the Community College of Allegheny County, in Pittsburgh, was prohibited from handing out pamphlets encouraging students to join Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, a national organization. The administration accused her of punishable "solicitation" for trying to "sell" students on her ideas and even insisted that she destroy her pamphlets.

In fall 2008, a professor at Central Connecticut State University called the police on students who gave a presentation in his speech class arguing for the safety value of concealed carry. Also in 2008, at Lone Star College-Tomball near Houston, a student group was threatened with dissolution for distributing a satiric flier listing "Top Ten Gun Safety Tips." The banned flier listed "advice" such as: "No matter how excited you are about buying your first gun, do not run around yelling ‘I have a gun! I have a gun!' "

That same year, students at another Texas school, Tarrant County College, were told that they had to go to the school's tiny "free speech zone" if they wanted to demonstrate in favor of concealed carry-and that they could not conduct a symbolic "empty holster protest" even within the confines of the zone. After the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, a student at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota, was suspended after he sent an email message suggesting that the carnage might have been stopped earlier if students had been armed, a professor at Boston's Emmanuel College was fired after leading a classroom discussion about the shooting in which he and a student exchanged pretend gunshots, and Yale briefly banned the use of any realistic-looking weapons in theatrical productions, whether switchblades, rapiers, or six-guns. (Yale now allows such prop weapons, provided that the audience is warned about them in advance.)

In a similar spirit, Arkansas Tech banned Stephen Sondheim's fanciful musical Assassins in 2008 "out of respect for the families of those victims of the tragedies at Northern Illinois University and Virginia Tech, and from an abundance of caution." And in spring 2008, students at Colorado College were found guilty of "violence" for producing a parody of a feminist flier. The offending document focused on macho topics such as "chainsaw etiquette," "tough guy wisdom," and the range of a sniper rifle. The administration seemed especially offended by the rifle, with the vice president of student life citing "the juxtaposition of weaponry and sexuality" as a primary reason justifying the finding.

Beyond Left and Right

Because America's universities tend to tilt left, and because many targets of P.C. censorship are socially conservative, campus censorship has too often come to be understood as a niche issue for the conservative media and blogosphere. This is a bizarre development, not only because free speech was once a central liberal cause but because liberals are by no means immune from campus censorship. Hindley, the Brandeis professor who was punished for his instructional use of wetback, is a liberal. Sampson, the student who read a book about the Klan, is an Obama voter, and some of the most vocal students opposing the Delaware residence program were liberals. This strange pigeonholing may explain why cases like that of Elizabeth Ito, who lost her job at Forsyth Technical Community College in North Carolina after criticizing the war in Iraq, or the students at the University of Texas who last year were threatened with expulsion for having an Obama poster in their window, struggled to find a receptive audience in the media.

The perception that free speech on campus is primarily a conservative issue ultimately enables campus censors. Free speech zones, for example, are often tiny, out-of-the-way areas where some campuses quarantine protest activities. Obtaining permission to use even these limited spaces often involves waiting periods and registration requirements. In my experience the zones disproportionately affect left-wing protests. In November, for example, three professors were banned from campus at Southwestern College in California after they supported students whose protest against budget cuts took place outside-I am not making this up-the "free speech patio." Nevertheless, the conservative website has listed a free speech zone as a "leftist" campus abuse. While the site commendably wants to bring attention to these speech cages, such labeling helps campus bureaucrats brush off criticism as the hobbyhorse of a disfavored political minority, rather than an expression of concern over policies that affect all students.

The reason for P.C. censorship often has nothing to do with left or right. Sensitivity is often a cynical excuse to squelch speech that administrators don't like for purely self-interested reasons. In late 2002, for example, the administration at Harvard Business School threatened a student newspaper editor because he ran a cartoon mocking the I.T. department for the failure of its computer system during interview week. The dean claimed the cartoon violated "community standards" because it was not "respectful discourse," but ultimately the rationale was one that FIRE frequently sees from campus administrators: I believe in free speech and all, but I draw the line at making fun of me.

Hayden Barnes was expelled from Valdosta State University in Georgia in 2007 for posting a collage on Facebook that critiqued a planned parking garage because of its effect on the environment. The school's rationale? Barnes, a decorated paramedic, posed a "clear and present danger" because the collage was labeled the "Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage." Ronald Zaccari was the president of the college; the collage's title was a joking reference to the president's assertion that the garage would be part of his "legacy." The school clearly did not seriously believe that Barnes was the next Virginia Tech gunman, as the expulsion note was simply slipped under his door along with a copy of the collage.

Unlearning Liberty

With all these examples of authoritarian bullying and systemic miseducation about rights, we shouldn't be surprised to discover that students are learning not only to accept censorship but to censor each other. Just before I completed this article, more than 10,000 copies of the official student newspaper for the University of Arizona were stolen and dumped by students who were upset about an article.

Newspaper theft is common on college campuses, with the most chilling examples culminating in public burnings. Students have burned other students' newspapers at schools as prestigious as Cornell, Boston College, Dartmouth, and the University of Wisconsin. In 2008 multiple incidents were reported in which students destroyed pro-life students' protest displays, including an incident at Missouri State University in which students smashed dozens of Popsicle-stick crosses and another at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in which a member of the student government tore up the crosses one by one in broad daylight. His defense: "Since [abortion] is a right, you don't have the right to challenge it."

When students come to believe that censoring rival points of view is not only permissible but laudable, the potential damage goes far beyond campus. Our colleges and universities produce our scientists, our business leaders, our lawyers, and our legislators. The habits formed in college inevitably seep into the other major social institutions.

In 1957 the U.S. Supreme Court said of the nation's colleges, "Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die." The Court was right. The next generation needs to learn the practices of a free people. If it doesn't, we shouldn't be surprised if, when it takes its turn to run our republic, values such as free speech and tolerance are treated like rusty, battered antiques: quaint, mysterious, and best kept in the basement.

Recent Articles

FIRE’s award-winning Newsdesk covers the free speech news you need to stay informed.