The Acton Institute on FIRE, Speech Codes, and Reading Solzhenitsyn at Ole Miss

December 3, 2008

Ray Nothstine, Associate Editor at the Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Acton Institute, has authored a thoughtful and illuminating article on the prevalence of speech codes and their chilling effects on campus freedom, as well as FIRE’s efforts to expose them and rid them from America’s colleges and universities.

Echoing FIRE co-founders Alan Charles Kors and Harvey Silverglate’s 1998 book The Shadow University, Nothstine articulates the dangers of an establishment steeped in censorship:

Limits on free speech [are] uniquely troubling for the future health of a free society. Students become accustomed to having their rights limited, and will be more lethargic in countering possible oppression from a growing and intrusive state. Perhaps even worse, some students might be unaware that their rights have been violated because they often lack the critical thinking skills needed to challenge punishment and oppression. Educational systems where students are encouraged to memorize and regurgitate information have not properly prepared them for healthy and constructive dissent.

Nothstine also cites examples of the more than 380 speech codes FIRE has rated on Spotlight: The Campus Freedom Resource, and pays particular attention to FIRE’s work exposing the reeducation programs employed last year by the Office of Residence Life at the University of Delaware.

Most intriguingly, Nothstine cites an incident from last month at the University of Mississippi, where an English class staged a reading of recently deceased Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and was interrupted by campus police, who suggested that they move the reading to one of the campus’ “speaker’s corners.”

According to Nothstine the issue was chalked up as “a misunderstanding” when it became clear that the reading was a department-sponsored activity. It does lead one to wonder, though, just what would have happened if a group had assembled for a similar activity outside the context of class, and how the university would then have reacted. Would Ole Miss have been comfortable doing to such an ad hoc group what they attempted to do to this class?

Nothstine gets it right with his dry comment that “one suspects the irony of attempting to limit the words of an author who wrote against totalitarian tactics was lost on some school officials.”

Schools:  University of Mississippi