Bucknell Speech Code Follies

, Sean Grindlay, Leave a comment

After years of controversy, students at Bucknell University recently had a chance to question administrators about the school’s sweeping harassment policy.

At a forum this month, one recent Bucknell graduate accused the administration of applying a double standard in its enforcement of the rules. He said that when the Bucknell University Conservative Club (BUCC) issued an editorial critical of the school’s speech policy, administrators immediately e-mailed the entire campus with a scolding response; but when the words “Die BUCC” were found chalked on a campus sidewalk, the administration was silent.

“Apples and oranges,” replied Charles Pollock, Bucknell’s vice president for student affairs, saying that the campus-wide e-mail was not punishment but “counterspeech” to the BUCC editorial. A recent free-speech forum at Bucknell pitted Pollack and another university spokesman against a civil libertarian who denounced the school’s far-reaching harassment policy as an obvious infringement on students’ freedom of speech.

The issue of whether the university’s policy on “bias-related harassment” amounts to a speech code has been a focus of contention over the last few years at Bucknell, a highly selective university located in Lewisburg, Pa. The BUCC, which arranged the April 1 forum, has dedicated two issues of its magazine, The Counterweight, to the subject of free speech on campus—a move that led some at Bucknell to demand that the group be de-funded for “insensitivity.”

A 2002 attempt to hold a forum on free speech was thwarted when the administration overruled the student government’s decision to fund the event. This year, after initially rejecting the BUCC’s offer to participate in the forum, the administration eventually agreed to send two representatives to defend the harassment policy.

Arguing the case against the current policy was Greg Lukianoff of the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Lukianoff contended that Bucknell’s code was so broadly written that it banned much more than simply harassment. Pointing to the policy’s prohibition on—among other things—“condescending remarks” and speech that “ridicules” others, he argued that the rules amounted to nothing less than a speech code.

“Bias-related behavior,” the current policy states, “includes any action that discriminates against, ridicules, humiliates, or otherwise creates a hostile environment for another individual or group because of race, religion, ethnic identity, sexual orientation, gender, language, or beliefs.”

“Some examples of bias-related action as understood by the university include: ethnic or racial name-calling; disparaging or condescending remarks about a person’s nationality, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation; verbal abuse, including anti-gay jokes and disparaging remarks about one’s race or language; ethnic insults or threats; [and] offensive racial graffiti.”

The university’s policy on sexual harassment is even more restrictive: “Some examples of sexual harassment that are in violation of Bucknell’s non-discriminatory policy include: disparaging or condescending remarks about a person’s gender or sexual orientation; verbal abuse including sexist jokes, and inappropriate remarks about one’s body or clothing; [and] sexual innuendoes made at inappropriate times.”

The Rev. Ian Oliver, the university chaplain, joined Pollock in representing the university administration at the forum. Both men have played major roles in drafting Bucknell’s new harassment policy, which they claim will be less restrictive and more just than the current code. The new rules are currently being reviewed by university lawyers and have not yet been released to the public.

Pollock said that what the university was trying to ban was not speech but harassment. The “toughest balancing act” for the administration, he stated, was to reconcile free speech with students’ right to equal educational opportunity.

Pollock claimed that the harassment policy was intended to help cultivate in students the ability to “live in a diverse society,” a skill he called “not optional, but imperative.” The university’s objective was not to “cut out” speech but rather to “institutionalize more inclusive approaches” to the curriculum, he said.

Oliver, who chairs the Committee for Campus Diversity, made a distinction between speech and “behavior that interferes with education.” He urged those in the audience to imagine what sort of effect persistent harassment would have on their lives. Arguing that the university had an obligation to maintain a harassment-free environment for all students, Oliver said that the school’s policy “addresses only the most egregious acts.”

But Lukianoff, citing statements from the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education, contended that the actions prohibited by the policy went far beyond the legal definition of harassment. Oliver, however, insisted that Bucknell’s rules were not substantially more restrictive than federal and state law.

A self-described liberal, Lukianoff gave an impassioned argument in favor of freedom of speech on campus, even when that speech is considered by many to be repulsive. When one’s beliefs are challenged, he said, one’s first instinct is to censor, and those in power will always find an excuse to justify censorship. In the 1960s, Lukianoff noted, liberals were usually the ones whose speech was repressed on college campuses; now it is conservatives who are finding themselves muzzled.

The rationale used to justify censorship always “appeals to people’s sensibilities,” Lukianoff said; several decades ago it was decency; now it is diversity. However benign the rationale appears at first, though, it always becomes a tool for enforcing ideological orthodoxy, he maintained.

Referring to the work of John Stuart Mill, Lukianoff argued that beliefs that are compelling in their own right do not need censors to defend them. Moreover, he said, those who are never forced to defend their opinions will not truly understand them; they will simply hold them as prejudices.

In response to complaints about “offensive speech,” Lukianoff contested the notion that offense is something to be avoided at all costs. “Being offended means having your deepest beliefs challenged,” he said.

Sean Grindlay is the managing editor of Campus Report Online.