We all know that “politics ain’t beanbag,” and perhaps in no setting is that made clearer than in the presidential and vice presidential debates.
Public debates on the issues are a hallmark of representative government, and, as we saw in the debates this year, the discussions can get pretty intense. This is healthy in a democratic system. But there’s an outrageous fact about these debates that goes unremarked by the candidates, moderators, and the media: if President Obama and Governor Romney were college students, they could have been hauled in front of a campus court and punished for what they said to each other during those 90-minute sessions.
Take the University of Denver, for example — the site of the first debate. The university bans “Any act, display, or communication that causes substantial injury or distress.” I think it’s safe to say that the candidates caused one another some distress in the first debate. As for “substantial injury,” even Obama admits he did not leave that debate unscathed.
How about the vice presidential debate at Centre College in Kentucky, where “verbal abuse” is banned? Did Joe Biden or Paul Ryan violate that restriction? What do you think?
And certainly both Obama and Romney would have felt the other was guilty at the second debate of violating Hofstra University’s speech code—a code that bans “verbal abuse, ridicule… stereotyping, and offensive and unwelcome jokes and comments.”
But Lynn University, the Florida school that was the site of the third presidential debate, takes the cake. Its policy bans “Making a false or misleading oral or written statement that misrepresents the character, qualifications, or reputation of another.” How does this square with the existence of political fact-checkers who spring to life to criticize both candidates right after each and every debate? Answer: it doesn’t. To a great extent, what is “misleading” or “misrepresenting” is in the eye of the beholder. That’s why in America, our fact checkers aren’t government authorities; they’re reporters and bloggers. At Lynn University, it’s safe to assume the fact checkers are the authorities. If they don’t agree with you, they can punish you. They would just never dare to do it to our nation’s presidential candidates.
So, why didn’t these ridiculous speech codes that are completely incompatible with the very function of a university ever come up in the debate? Well, for one, I doubt either candidate bothered to look into the colleges’ policies. They could have easily done this if they’d simply visited the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s (FIRE’s) website (I am the president of FIRE).
The second and more pernicious reason, however, is that as a society we have gotten too used to university censorship. Indeed, in our 2012 report on speech codes, FIRE revealed that 65 percent of 392 top colleges in the country maintain policies that flatly circumvent both the principles enshrined in the First Amendment and our honored traditions of academic freedom.
Campus speech codes were considered a scandal back in the 1980s and ’90s. Yet most campuses have long since adopted them anyway, and when FIRE regularly announces its Speech Code of the Month—as it has for more than half a decade—some universities seem to simply shrug their shoulders, wondering, “what’s the big deal?”
In my new book Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship in the End of American Debate, I try to explain how campus speech codes and blatant acts of viewpoint-based censorship on campuses harm us all. The book is loaded with examples of students getting in trouble for saying anything and everything. At Syracuse, a white student was punished for complaining about a comment he believed was racist. At Bucknell, students criticizing Obama’s stimulus bill were silenced. And in one case in Indiana, a student was punished simply for reading a book that was critical of the Ku Klux Klan in public.
Violations of student rights even go beyond what students are prevented from saying and at times actually dictate what students are required to say—even against their own conscience. In Unlearning Liberty, I discuss shocking cases in which social work students were asked to lobby the government for causes they did not believe in. In one case in Missouri, an evangelical Christian landed in serious trouble when she wouldn’t sign a letter supporting gay adoption.
You might be surprised to hear that I would have welcomed it if the campus speech codes in effect on the debate campuses were used against both candidates in the debate. I wish that every time either Obama or Romney engaged in something that their opponent could argue was “ridicule,” a university administrator had come on stage and told them to stop talking or face punishment.
As a lifetime advocate of free speech, why would I like this? Because speech codes are only able to survive when they are applied with double standards and kept safely in reserve — both as a warning for students to keep their mouths shut and as a tool to use only when administrators so choose. If they were actually used as written on a regular basis, they would be instantly exposed for the assaults on free speech that they are, and they wouldn’t last a day.
I wish our country would have had the chance to see the spectacle of these absurd codes in action. Maybe then we would stop accepting campus speech codes as some kind of new normal.