Will Colleges Respect Your Child's Rights?

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Hundreds
of thousands of families across North America are now preparing
their children for college. As parents hustle to buy clothing, repair
secondhand cars and otherwise fret about the impending separation,
they should consider how their son or daughter’s human rights will
fare on campus.

Their
freedom of speech is particularly vulnerable.

The
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has just released
its Speech
Code of the Month Award
for August, which recognizes abuses
of First Amendment rights.

The
winner? Richard Stockton College
of New Jersey, a public institution allegedly bound by the Constitution.

Stockton’s
speech
code
policies contain several now-standard provisions. For example,
it prohibits “All forms of unlawful discrimination based upon race,
creed, color, national origin, ancestry, age, sex, marital status,
familial status, affectional or sexual orientation, atypical hereditary
cellular or blood trait, genetic information … or disability.”

It
considers discrimination to be present “even if there was no intent
… to harass or demean another.”

The
policy is both vague and broad. Key terms such as “derogatory” and
“demeaning” are undefined but – whatever they cover –
classroom speech is included. Thus, a student who argues an unpopular
position in class – e.g. ‘affirmative action is racist because
it discriminates against white men’ or ‘gay marriage is against
Biblical teachings’ – may be punished if another student feels
offended. Objective discrimination or intent to harm does not need
to be present.

Stockton
is not unique. Indeed, its speech code policy is drawn directly
from the widely-applied New Jersey State “Policy
Prohibiting Discrimination, Harassment or Hostile Environments in
the Workplace.”

The
publicly-funded William Paterson University, also in New Jersey,
draws upon this code. Recently William Paterson censured
a student-employee
for responding in private e-mail to an unsolicited
university announcement that promoted a lesbian movie. He made the
“mistake” of asking to be unsubscribed due to religious objections.

William
Paterson deemed his response to be harassment and a threat of violence.

New
Jersey’s campuses are far from unique. That’s why FIRE
lists close to 100 recent speech code cases in its files. The complaints
against students include “sexually suggestive staring” and “inappropriately
directed laughter.”

FIRE
also offers a free online book, Guide
to Free Speech on Campus.
As well, it provides a state-by-state
searchable database on university
policies (see Harvard
as an example).

Many
parents begin to financially plan for higher education at their
child’s birth and many delay retirement in order to pay tuition.
They should be outraged by how little respect their daughter or
son receives for that stiff price.

Parents
may also be puzzled about why some universities oppose free speech
instead of championing it.

One
approach to an explanation is to view the phenomenon as part of
a general societal trend that has pitted freedom of speech against
tolerance as though they were enemies. This trend claims that expressing
my dislike or criticism of the gender, race or lifestyle of others
is tantamount to violating their civil rights.

The
trend rests on a specific definition of “tolerance.” For many, that
means being broadminded. It means acknowledging the legal right
of others to a dissenting opinion, religious belief or peaceful
lifestyle such as homosexuality.

The
foregoing definition of tolerance does not require stifling your
own opinions or preferences, which have an equal legal status. It
does not require you to personally accept what you tolerate. Defending
people’s right to be different doesn’t involve taking them out to
dinner and a movie.

The
current campus definition of tolerance inverts the more traditional
meaning and demands personal acceptance. Tolerance becomes the active
celebration of “diversity” and toleration requires the suppression
of the speech, views or peaceful behavior that supposedly hinder
diversity by making “diverse others” uncomfortable. The others are
usually members of a group that has been historically oppressed,
such as women and are deemed to now deserve special legal protection.

Thus,
a bizarre scenario occurs: Advocates of tolerance call for censorship.
Champions of diversity narrow the range of expressible attitudes.
This is a form of Newspeak,
the fictional language in George Orwell’s novel 1984
that depicts a totalitarian future. Orwell explained the
purpose of Newspeak: To reduce the very ability of people to express
subversive ideas and attitudes (“thoughtcrimes”).

A
fundamental way in which the reduction is achieved is by destroying
the meaning of objectionable words by redefining them as their opposites.
For example, “War is Peace,” “Tolerance is Censorship” and “Diversity
is the Removal of Wrong Attitudes.”

Making
these new definitions work means eliminating the old definitions
and those who use them. In Orwell’s dystopian future, certain ideas
or attitudes become “unspeakable” and punishable. On campuses, certain
ideas or attitudes violate speech codes and are punishable.

Both
reflect an attempt to change how society thinks through changing
or eliminating words.

Parallels
between Orwell and current academia can be carried too far. But
the existence of clear parallels should concern every parent who
has a child heading toward campus.

Those
parents should to do a speech code search for the relevant campus
in FIRE’s database. Then, they should do a similar FIRE search on
due process – that is, how does that campus handle your child’s
right to due process should he or she express an “unspeakable” idea
or attitude?

August
25, 2005

Wendy
McElroy [send her mail]
is the editor of ifeminists.com
and a research fellow for The
Independent Institute
in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and
editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty
for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century

(Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002).

Wendy
McElroy Archives

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