Early last week, the Ithaca College Student Government Association passed a resolution to create an anonymous, online system for students to report “microaggressions” on campus. FIRE has closely monitored the bill’s progress, as its language presents obvious problems for freedom of expression at the private New York college.
First, the measure resolves to create a “school-wide online system to report microaggressions”—but does not define the term “microaggressions.” This glaring lack of clarity is deeply troubling. Without a stable understanding of what a microaggression is or is not, students run the risk of being reported for speech that crosses an invisible line, drawn by and known only to the offended listener. Of course, the inherent subjectivity of microaggressions is an even bigger problem, and the squirrely elasticity of the term makes the lack of clear definition all but unavoidable. One student’s microaggression is another’s earnest attempt to discuss different life experiences. The chill on student speech would be severe. In fact, chilling speech appears to be the point; as one supporter of the bill told The Ithacan student newspaper, “Just like any other resolution that we want to pass with microaggression and diversity in the institution, what it does is it helps to make people think a little more before they do or say something.”
If the bill had included a definition, the threat to free expression would likely be clearer still. In an interview with The Ithaca Voice, one of the bill’s authors defined microaggressions as “statements by a person from a privileged group that belittles or isolates a member of an unprivileged group, as it relates to race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability and more.” This is an unequivocal attempt to police speech, and it only prompts more questions: What groups are privileged or unprivileged? Who decides? What makes a statement “belittling” or “isolating”? Who decides? What other class statuses might make a student a member of an unprivileged group? Who decides? Again, the inescapable subjectivity of the term means that student expression is only as safe as the most sensitive student on campus allows it to be, however unreasonable his or her determination.
Ithaca College is a private institution, and thus not bound by the First Amendment. But it promises students freedom of speech in no uncertain terms. The school’s Statement of Rights and Freedoms proclaims, “Freedom of inquiry and freedom of expression are essential elements in a campus community.” It’s impossible to square the student government’s call for “reporting” speech that one student finds “belittling” or “isolating” with the college’s clear promises of freedom of expression. And given those promises, students matriculating to Ithaca have every reason to expect the same First Amendment rights as their peers up the road at the University at Albany, State University of New York. Were this microaggressions policy passed at SUNY Albany, it wouldn’t pass constitutional muster. As FIRE’s Susan Kruth has noted, “Microaggressions that consist only of speech or expression are protected by the First Amendment unless they also fall into one of the few and narrowly-defined categories of unprotected speech, like true threats or incitement to imminent lawless action. (Since microaggressions are ‘subtle verbal and nonverbal insults’ that are often ‘done automatically and unconsciously,’ this is unlikely.)”
The problems with the student government’s measure don’t end there, unfortunately. The resolution further states that “the system will be set up to not identify individuals who choose to report by name but will note the demographics of people who report and the demographics of oppressors based on a coding system.” As explained by one of the bill’s authors, the bill would record the “gender, race, age and school within the college and year of both the person reporting the microaggression and the person being reported.”
In other words, the class status of student speakers (“oppressors”) who are deemed to have “belittled” or “isolated” a student member of an “unprivileged group” would be recorded. Presumably, the reporting student would be empowered to determine the oppressor’s gender, race, and age—a potentially fraught process in and of itself, as this recent televised exchange between writer Jay Smooth and CBS commentator Nancy Giles illustrates.
The Ithacan reports that the sponsors’ desire to go further by requiring that the names of the “oppressors” be recorded, too, was quelled only by “possible legal barriers.” Apparently, those barriers are currently being reviewed by college lawyers. Publicly labelling a student an “oppressor” solely on the basis of an anonymous report about speech that caused subjective offense? What could possibly go wrong?
Commentators elsewhere are pointing out these and other problems, too. Reason’s Nick Gillespie writes:
So remember, kids, you don't go to college to learn new things and feed your head. You go to college to be subjected to an anonymous system of collecting information about the bad thoughts you have and the misstatements you make, some of which you might not even have intended to be hurtful.
I would like to believe that awfulness of imposing such a system is self-evident, especially at a university, which is supposed to be about the free and open exchange of ideas and the production of knowledge (at least in the few spare moments between football games and re-education seminars). In an astonishingly short half-century, we have cycled from a demand for "free speech" on college campuses to the condemnation of speech via anonymous, online, geo-tagged systems that may or may not accord the accused any ability to speak up in their own defense.
And as Professor William Jacobson of neighboring Cornell Law School asks, “To whom do students report the microaggression reporting system?”