Education requires freedom of speech as a precondition. Yet American universities systematically censor voices that are politically incorrect while those advancing the "correct" view such as radical feminism or militant anti-racism remain strangely unrestrained. Yet, from many accounts, hate speech on campuses is on the rise.
In his book Illiberal Education, Dinesh D'Souza calls this phenomenon "prejudice, not from ignorance, but from experience." By this, D'Souza means that laws and policies that favor certain groups at the expense of others create an intolerance where none previously existed. For example, whites resent blacks who are admitted to universities on a preferred basis. Males who watch their every word resent feminists who male-bash with impunity.
Consider a remark made by Ann Rhodes the University of Iowa's Vice President for relations and UI spokeswoman at a news briefing on April 20th.
The briefing was meant to announce an arrest in connection with a bomb threat and racist e-mails at the College of Dentistry. A reporter asked Rhodes if she was surprised that the guilty party was an African-American female student. An official UI spokeswoman for the past 11 years, Rhodes replied, "I figured it was going to be a white guy between 25 and 55 because they're the root of most evil" thus compressing racism, sexism, and ageism into one brief sentence. If a male official made such a similar comment about black women, he would be suspended pending disciplinary action. Rhodes merely apologized. Then she pointed out how many letters of support she'd received from women, thus converting her apology into a quasi-defense.
What was UI's response? On April 21st, UI President Mary Sue Coleman sent out a vague letter stating, "Let us take it as a wake-up call that reminds us that we should judge each other as individuals by the content of our character." The "wake-up call" referred to the racist e-mails and bomb threat, not Rhodes. In a later statement, Coleman softened the comment about white males being evil, "Ann tried to relieve her tension [about the arrest] with a very inappropriate comment." Mary New Assistant Director for University Affairs said she had "no knowledge" of whether Rhodes would attend sensitivity training, a standard cure imposed on men who make "very inappropriate comments." On April 27th, the university declared the matter to be closed.
Contrast this experience with that of University of Oklahoma Professor David Deming. In February, Deming wrote a letter to the student newspaper the Oklahoma Daily in response to an anti-gun article by Yale student Joni Kletter. She had written, "easy access to a handgun allows everyone in this country…to quickly and easily kill as many random people as they want." Deming commented that Kletter's "easy access to a vagina" allowed her to have sex with random people. Nevertheless, he hoped she was "as responsible with her equipment as most gun owners are with theirs."
There are striking differences between the comments of Rhodes and Deming. Rhodes spoke as an UI representative; Deming was an individual expressing a personal opinion. Rhodes made a blanket statement about a racial, gender and age group; Deming spoke to one specific individual. Rhodes declared a group to be the root of evil; Deming merely used the word "vagina" to draw a clumsy parallel.
The difference in how Deming was treated is striking as well. A letter collectively signed by professors and grad students condemned him in the Oklahoma Daily. John Snow, the dean of the College of Geosciences where Deming works, wrote him a letter stating, "In the future, when you enter into public discussion on controversial social issues, I ask that you weigh fully the non-trivial costs and consequences to the individuals with whom you work and the institutions which provide you a professional home." Only one professor spoke out in his defense.
More than twenty-five complaints were registered against Deming with the university's Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action. One of them was filed by Becky Hebert an associate professor of human relations. Under extreme pressure from both the media and Deming's lawyers at the Center for Individual Rights (CIR), U of O dismissed the complaints. The complainants appealed. Curt Levey of CIR later informed me, "A day after the appeal hearing the Univ. of Oklahoma reversed its earlier dismissal of the charges. Deming is scheduled to be tried on the sexual harassment charge May 5." On May 5th, CIR issued a press release. Minutes before CIR filed suit with a federal court, the U of O had canceled all disciplinary proceedings. The University's General Counsel conceded that "the First Amendment…would allow but one conclusion" namely, the university would lose.
There is good news about the Rhodes controversy. The Daily Iowan (05/03) reported, "A California-based "European-American" group filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Commission last week because of a remark made at an April 20 UI press conference." Rodger Murphey, a spokesman for the US Education Department, said that federal law requires them to investigate any discrimination based on race, religion, age, sex or disability. The fact that UI receives federal tax money for its operation lobbies for pursuing the complaint. According to the most recent information available, the University of Iowa received $167.2 million in federal tax money, grants and contracts. Murphey stated that it might take a few weeks to evaluate the case.
The complaint against Rhodes is good news in one sense only that is, if those who espouse political correctness are made to feel the brunt of their own censorship policies, then freedom of speech may re-emerge on American campuses. No one not Deming or Rhodes should face legal sanction for expressing an opinion. The suppression is particularly offensive at state-funded universities, where speech codes constitute nothing less then government censorship.
A bitter irony underlies the speech codes championed by radical feminists, militant anti-racists, and gay/lesbian groups. The irony is this: as little as three decades ago, a fledgling feminist movement could not have developed without freewheeling discussion and dissent about gender stereotypes. The early civil rights movement consciously used confrontational language and provocative images. The gay rights movement could not have flourished without the in-your-face attitude of its early politics. Yet these groups are motive forces behind the new campus censorship. Having been born in free speech, they conclude that less discussion not more is called for.
In his book Hate Speech: the History of an American Controversy, Samuel Walker offered an explanation of why these aggressive groups have been so successful at imposing campus speech codes. They constituted "a coalition of advocates who…faced poorly organized opposition in defense of an absolutist position on free speech." The good news is that freedom of speech advocates may be organizing at long last.
Ann Rhodes has an inalienable right to state that white men are the root of all evil, not merely most. (Whether UI should fire her as a representative is a separable issue.) Nevertheless, I cannot suppress a tingle of glee at seeing the u2018politically correct' squirm in a trap of their own making. I can't resist laughing out loud as I read feminist attempts in the Daily Iowan to justify Rhodes' statement. For example, consider the following self-proclaimed "tips for offended white males" and imagine a man offering the same to an offended feminist. The tips include, "Don't get so emotional…. Don't take everything so personally…. Try to understand your adversary's viewpoint…. Don't simply whine and bitch about unfair generalizations."
If the tables turn in a sufficiently jarring manner, then perhaps the speech code crusaders will remember a key lesson namely, that censorship does not serve the interests of victimized groups. It always serves those in power, with whom rests the decision of what to censor. u201870s feminists, civil rights workers and gay rights activists knew this. The new campus censors have let a bit of temporary power go to their heads and affect their memories.
Let freedom ring and let it be raucous!
May 18, 2000
Wendy McElroy is author of The Reasonable Woman.