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Compelled Speech and the Veneer of Conformity at Swarthmore College

Do we as a society still leave room for harmless errors of judgement, for learning opportunities, and for conversation? Do we leave room to question orthodoxy in all its forms? Increasingly, recent events on college campuses indicate that the answer to these questions is a definitive “no.”

One of the more disturbing manifestations of this trend is the institutionalization of so-called “bias response systems.” Defining “bias incidents” casts a real-world ideological order over the campus intellectual culture that, increasingly, involves actual punitive measures. Adding to the danger, the term “bias incident” is entirely subjective, and it could be leveled against any speech. It is, in essence, a tool to be selectively applied by an institution against speech it dislikes. In November 2015, Swarthmore College, the institution I attend, formally put in place its own “bias response protocol,” which only formalized the college’s already existing tradition of censoring disapproved speech.

An incident in January 2015, my freshman year, illustrated all the worst tendencies that formalized speech-policing encourages, including student-on-student surveillance, forced apologies, and thought reform masquerading as substantive dialogue. The end result is a thin veneer of cultural conformity that paints over underlying difference.  

During this incident, six members of a dorm block took a group portrait. One student then sent the picture to the other five members, one of whom added the caption “comin’ to gang bang yo bitch.” This student then posted the picture, with the caption, to a private Instagram account. One of the followers of that account, offended by the image and words, shared the photo and caption, which was passed on through Facebook. This resulted in several offended Swarthmore community members filing formal complaints to the college president, the Title IX coordinator, and the public safety department.

At no point did anyone contend that the language constituted anything more than an ill-advised joke. The caption was not targeted at anyone in particular. Nevertheless, the students involved wrote a lengthy and formal apology to the entire community which was sent out through the dean’s office—whether voluntarily or at the behest of the dean’s office is unclear. The fact that the dean’s office disseminated the apology seems to indicate some degree of institutional involvement.

The letter did not end the matter. The college launched a formal investigation for breach of the student conduct code, presumably under Swarthmore’s “red light” sexual harassment policy. The outcome of this investigation, and whether the students faced actual disciplinary charges, remains unknown. Under Swarthmore’s written policy, sexual harassment constitutes “unreasonable, unwelcome conduct that is based on an individual’s sex,” and it “can occur in any form and can be directed at individuals or groups.” This prohibition also applies to a long list of other protected classes. In effect, any viewpoint, idea, or speech that is subjectively viewed as offensive by a protected class, even if it isn’t directed at a particular individual, can constitute harassment.

With such a broad and easily abused policy on the books, Swarthmore didn’t need a second code violating expressive rights in the bias response protocol. While the protocol itself states that bias incidents “do not alone meet the necessary elements required to prove … a violation of College policy,” the harassment policy allows for bias incidents to be treated as violations. Neither the broad harassment policy nor the bias response protocol is acceptable at an institution that purports to maintain a campus of open dialogue and free inquiry.

In addition to the formal investigation, a litany of emails were sent out from the college president and the student government, condemning the speech and declaring that the student body had been subjected to, in former president Connie Hungerford’s words, an “unacceptable breach of our standards of respect for each other.”

All this because of a joke, posted initially on a private social media account. In response, these students were apparently compelled to apologize through administrative pressure and a looming investigation. Compelled speech does nothing to suggest whether the students actually thought their speech was harmful.

Masking ideas we deem offensive through censorship and going after what was, for all intents and purposes, a mere joke with such zeal does a terrible disservice to a community that wishes to actually address troubling ideas and cultural norms. It also develops a dangerous, paternalistic pattern. By placing the adjudication of offense in the hands of an administrative authority, students no longer have to engage one on one with peers. This system is predicated on a reliance on authority, one that removes for students the opportunity to speak up and speak out for themselves without support and guidance. When this support system falls away after graduation, students will enter the real world without the tools, experience, and strength they need to effect real change.

While the speech in question may seem of little substantive value, this incident is indicative of the frozen atmosphere for challenging dialogue at Swarthmore. I have found that many students are unwilling or downright fearful of openly expressing views that fall outside of the Swarthmore orthodoxy. While the censorship in this case was directed at a joke deemed offensive by some in the community, it isn’t hard to understand why incidents like this cast a chilling pall over any substantive discourse that some may deem offensive to their identities and politics. In a particularly disturbing act of doublethink, the college asserts in its protocol that “[w]hile freedom of expression and the open exchange of ideas are a vital part of the educational discourse, bias activity … erodes individual rights.” In a nutshell, freedom is equated with oppression. This sentiment must be challenged on all fronts if Swarthmore is to maintain its commitment to intellectual diversity and rigorous engagement with the world.

Lewis Fitzgerald-Holland is a FIRE summer intern.

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