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Rosenbloom ’13: Even on liberal campuses, you’re not as free as you think

Opinions Columnist
Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The prevalence of restrictive speech codes on college campuses is an underreported travesty of our time. The modern university ought to be a bastion of intellectual freedom where every idea is protected, and the college experience should empower individuals to learn how to deal with adult freedom responsibly. But unfortunately American colleges and universities do not actually protect individual liberty. Though most schools claim to value free speech, very few schools uphold this fundamental right that most Americans take for granted.

This summer, I worked at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a non-profit organization committed to protecting and sustaining individual rights on college campuses, including freedom of speech, freedom of religion and due process. I learned that only a small percentage of universities fully protect the free speech rights of their students. The vast majority of students attend schools with unconstitutional or immoral restrictions on student expression.

Oppressive university speech restrictions may not receive the media attention they once did, but they are still the norm on campus. The foundation has conducted research on the speech policies of about 390 institutions. A vast majority of the schools surveyed have repressive speech codes, which are defined as policies that unduly restrict speech that is protected by the First Amendment. About two-thirds — 261 schools — received “red-light” designations, meaning that they have at least one policy that “clearly and substantially” restricts student expression. Only 14 schools earned a “green-light” rating for fully protecting student expression.

Speech restrictions can be found in a variety of university policies, including harassment, diversity and multiculturalism policies, guidelines on religious and political speech and university honor codes. These speech restrictions are often laughably vague. Case in point: Middlebury College states that “behavior unbecoming of a Middlebury student, or continued behavior that demonstrates contempt for the generally accepted values of the intellectual community may result in disciplinary action.”

The majority of schools have policies that, if applied consistently and uniformly, would subject a significant amount of student expression to discipline. Even Brown’s policy states that “suggestive jokes of a sexual nature” constitute sexual harassment when they “make people uncomfortable.”  Though I brought this policy to the attention of the Office of Institutional Diversity, whose representative took these concerns seriously, no action has yet been taken.

There are not only moral arguments against such speech restrictions, but also legal implications. It is blatantly unconstitutional for public universities to enact speech policies that violate the First Amendment. Private universities have the right to limit student speech as long as they are honest and transparent about their policies. However, private universities that promise to protect student expression — and like Brown, almost all do — and then enact oppressive policies have violated their promises, exposing their universities to breach of contract lawsuits.

Universities across the nation betray the First Amendment and their professed adherence to free inquiry with these restrictive speech codes. Administrators often justify these speech codes on the grounds of civility, tolerance and cultural sensitivity. These are all admirable goals, but it is counterproductive and immoral to stifle speech in an attempt to create a respectful environment.

Using speech codes to publicly silence socially unacceptable speech will not create a genuinely tolerant campus because such views would only be expressed in private, where they would not be challenged rationally. When public speech is stifled, bigots do not have to expose the folly of their ideas to close public scrutiny.

Unofficial social pressure is more effective at rooting out hateful ideas than any speech codes. Those with hateful or insensitive beliefs are not usually received well on college campuses. The social consequences they face may lead to self-reflection and a genuine change of heart, while a speech code encourages the bigot to stick to his beliefs instead of critically examining them.

In addition, it is anti-democratic to allow one group of people to define the limits of civility and sensitivity. These limits constantly change, both within individuals and across generations. There is no guarantee that the campus orthodoxies of today will always hold sway. While conservatives used to rule the academy, today the prevailing standards on college campuses align with liberal beliefs about race, gender, class and sexual orientation.

Even if you share these specific political beliefs, you should not support the silencing of opposing beliefs. Power changes hands, and prevailing orthodoxies often evolve or transform into something wholly new. Protecting the speech you dislike today establishes a principle that will help protect your own speech tomorrow.

Finally, it is worth remembering that there is immense educational value in allowing full freedom of expression. Being forced to hear different and unpopular opinions exposes us to new perspectives and forces us to justify our own beliefs. Censoring student expression does not only harm the silenced student. It also undermines the educational experience for the entire college community by shielding us from this opportunity for intellectual growth and challenge.

Oliver Rosenbloom ’13 is a history concentrator from Mill Valley, Calif.

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