Connservative pundit Ann Coulter was disinvited from Fordham with the blessing of the University administration, which nonetheless defended the appearance of infanticide-supporing Peter Singer. The controversy has lead to scrutiny of American campus speech codes.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has been at the forefront of battles involving student First Amendment rights. In an extensive Wall Street Journal piece, FIRE’s president Greg Lukianoff recounts some very disturbing cases.
Today, university bureaucrats suppress debate with anti-harassment policies that function as de facto speech codes. FIRE maintains a database of such policies on its website, and Mr. Lukianoff’s book offers an eye-opening sampling. What they share is a view of “harassment” so broad and so removed from its legal definition that, Mr. Lukianoff says, “literally every student on campus is already guilty.”
At Western Michigan University, it is considered harassment to hold a “condescending sex-based attitude.” That just about sums up the line “I think of all Harvard men as sissies” (from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920 novel “This Side of Paradise”), a quote that was banned at Yale when students put it on a T-shirt. Tufts University in Boston proscribes the holding of “sexist attitudes,” and a student newspaper there was found guilty of harassment in 2007 for printing violent passages from the Quran and facts about the status of women in Saudi Arabia during the school’s “Islamic Awareness Week.”
At California State University in Chico, it was prohibited until recently to engage in “continual use of generic masculine terms such as to refer to people of both sexes or references to both men and women as necessarily heterosexual.” Luckily, there is no need to try to figure out what the school was talking about—the prohibition was removed earlier this year after FIRE named it as one of its two “Speech Codes of the Year” in 2011.
At Northeastern University, where I went to law school, it is a violation of the Internet-usage policy to transmit any message “which in the sole judgment” of administrators is “annoying.”
Conservatives and libertarians are especially vulnerable to such charges of harassment. Even though Mr. Lukianoff’s efforts might aid those censorship victims, he hardly counts himself as one of them: He says that he is a lifelong Democrat and a “passionate believer” in gay marriage and abortion rights. And free speech. “If you’re going to get in trouble for an opinion on campus, it’s more likely for a socially conservative opinion.”
Consider the two students at Colorado College who were punished in 2008 for satirizing a gender-studies newsletter. The newsletter had included boisterous references to “male castration,” “feminist porn” and other unprintable matters. The satire, published by the “Coalition of Some Dudes,” tamely discussed “chainsaw etiquette” (“your chainsaw is not an indoor toy”) and offered quotations from Teddy Roosevelt and menshealth.com. The college found the student satirists guilty of “the juxtaposition of weaponry and sexuality.”
“Even when we win our cases,” says Mr. Lukianoff, “the universities almost never apologize to the students they hurt or the faculty they drag through the mud.” Brandeis University has yet to withdraw a 2007 finding of racial harassment against Prof. Paul Hindley for explaining the origins of “wetback” in a Latin-American Studies course.