Free Speech On Campus Gagged, Senators Hear

, Jennifer Dekel, Leave a comment

College Administrators are redefining free speech out of existence on campuses across the country, witnesses representing students and alumni told U.S. senators in a hearing late last month. Three of the four witnesses called themselves liberals.

Most colleges, according to Greg Lukianoff, the Legal Director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), “redefine existing serious offenses to include protected expression.”

“Hood College in Maryland, for example, defines ‘harassment’ as ‘any intentionally disrespectful behavior toward others,’” simultaneously banning levels of free speech.

Lukianoff told members of the U.S. Senate Committee On Health Education, Labor and Pensions of the college speech codes across the nation. For example, Hampshire College in Massachusetts bans “’psychological intimidation and harassment of any person or pet.’”

Lukianoff said that FIRE has created a system in order to monitor and combat campus “speech codes,” which FIRE defines as “any campus regulation that punishes, forbids, heavily regulates, or restricts a substantial amount of expression that would be protected in the larger society.” Of the 176 universities that FIRE examined, there are only 20 at which FIRE found no policy that seriously imperils speech, 80 that have some policies that could ban or excessively regulate protected speech, and 76 that have policies that ban a substantial amount of what would be clearly protected speech in the larger society.

Another type of speech code, according to Lukianoff, is the “speech zone” policy, “which limits protests, debates, and even pamphleteering to tiny corners of campus.” FIRE has combated these policies at dozens of public universities.

Anthony Dick, a student at the University of Virginia (UVA), described that school’s “Discriminatory Harassment Policy” in which “students are warned against engaging in any type of expression that ‘unreasonably interferes with [a] person’s work or academic performance or participation in University activities, or creates a working or learning environment that a reasonable person would find threatening or intimidating.”

Dick said that he was deeply disappointed when arriving at the college. “First, universities must respect the freedom of every individual to express any idea or opinion without fear of punishment,” Dick said. “Second, universities must allow all ideas to compete on an equal footing, without using institutional power to privilege certain viewpoints above others. At UVA, both of these principles have eroded.”

Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) asked whether liberal arts colleges feel pressured to be more politically correct in order to become accredited and maintain a good reputation. Anne Neal, President of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) responded, “Politically correct criteria were brought to the accrediting process.”
One solution Neal provided to increase intellectual diversity and academic freedom on college campuses is an alternative source of accreditation provided by the states. More importantly, Neal promoted the adoption by trustees of a statement and/or resolution that all faculty departments are expected to be balanced, courses should be focused upon the acquiring of knowledge rather than the manipulation of political viewpoints, university-sponsored speaker programs should present a range of viewpoints, and there will be no toleration of “ideological or political discrimination in the hiring, firing, or promoting of faculty.”

Johnson, on the other hand, said that, “restoring intellectual diversity on campus requires support from the outside–from alumni trustees, and government.” He suggested that Congress has the ability to encourage intellectual freedom on campuses without much intervention by holding hearings in order to force the issue into public discourse. Also, Johnson supports “specifically targeted federal grants to promote the study and teaching of American politics, foreign policy, and the law.” The Higher Education for Freedom Act sponsored by Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH), contains the type of grants Johnson envisions.

Lukianoff warned against congressional involvement, due to the notion that various “well-intentioned legislation designed to protect the interests of different groups of students is all too often used as an excuse for censorship.” Lukianoff hopes to “put an end to this vicious cycle of censorship,” by working with coalitions of organizations and individuals across the political spectrum to teach the significance of promoting free speech on campuses.

The argument over the lack of intellectual diversity on college campuses is not a left or right issue, Dick said. “I was raised in a liberal family, I am a registered Democrat in the state of Virginia, and I maintain liberal views on many political issues,” Dick said. “Although each of us in the IRC [the student group, Individual Rights Coalition, at UVA] has a different vision of the ideal society, none of us is willing to sacrifice liberal arts education in an effort to see our vision realized.”