I hate to sound like the old man on Saturday Night Live as played by Dana Carvey who used to exclaim “that’s the way it was and we liked it!” However, I can remember when college campuses led the way when it came to free speech and First Amendment issues. Now, just as I suspected, the opposite is true.
According to the nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, based in Philadelphia, suppression of First Amendment rights at our countries’ colleges and universities is a “national scandal.” 229 schools were given a “red light” ranking, the lowest possible mark, in a report “Spotlight on Speech Codes 2006: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses.” Red light institutions have at least one policy that “clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech” according to the report.
The group analyzed policies at 334 schools in 2005 and 2006 and concluded that “an overwhelming majority prohibit speech that outside the campus is protected by the First Amendment.” Speech code policies governing expression were first enacted in the 1980’s. However, the U.S. Supreme Court makes few exceptions to the First Amendment such as what the report calls “speech that incites reasonable people to violence, libel and actual harassment.” The Court has defined harassment as “so severe, pervasive and objecttively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit.”
My home state school, the University of Arkansas, has long been considered a bastion of “political correctness.” Indeed the U of A is on the list. The powers that be at the University quickly defended their policies, along with the President of the Associated Student Governent, issuing a blurb about how the University is committed to freedom of speech. Hogwash! They aren’t and haven’t been for years. In all my travels, I have yet to see a school in lockstep with the PC crowd as much as the U of A.
“I believe students should have complete access to their rights but they should also be responsible in utilizing them in an effective way” said the Student Government President. Since when is that in the constitution? Since when do Universities have the right to bypass the constitution? They don’t. There is nothing in the First Amendment about exercising those rights in a responsible way. The Supreme Court has ruled that freedom of speech does not give one the right to yell “fire” in a crowded theatre, but it says nothing of “utilizing words in an effective way” or other such tripe.
Of course there are things that shouldn’t be said in public. Of course Michael Richards had no business saying the things he said. Of course people shouldn’t use hate speech or racial epithets, but restricting speech to what is popular is not what the First Amendment is all about. The First Amendment was written to protect unpopular or controversial speech because that is what is most likely to be restricted.
I find it deplorable that 229 of 334 schools got the lowest ranking, the “red light”. 92 got a “yellow light”, meaning they have policies that restrict only narrow categories of speech. 6 schools were not rated. You do the math. That means out of 334 schools, only 8, or about 2.4% have no policies that seriously restrict speech, according to this report.
Samantha Harris, the Foundation’s director of legal and public advocacy says “there is this attitude on a lot of campuses that people have the right not to be offended. They ban free speech in the process. You don’t have the right not to be offended or annoyed.” That’s the rub.We have become a nation of victims, hypersensitive to any slight, real or imagined. The Foundation believes EEOC standards meant for the workplace are unsuitable for university environments, which should encourage free speech and tolerate more expression than an office.
More alarming was that private schools fared better than public schools, which are required by law to protect constitutional rights. 58% of privates received a red light, compared to 73% of public institutions.
I never thought protecting free speech would be considered “old fashioned.” To too many people free speech only applies to those who are like them or agree with their ideas. I may disagree with what you say, but unless you libel me I don’t have the right to infringe on your right to say it. It hasn’t been that long since people’s constitutional rights were routinely violated publicly because they were the “wrong color”. Those of us who have any memory of those days should be outraged that all the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, his death and all the other suffering in the struggle for freedom could turn out to be in vain. Many have fought and died for our right to speak freely. Let’s not let those who should be teaching students to exercise those freedoms instead take them away.