Speak Loudly and Carry a Big Stick

Greg Lukianoff’s book “Unlearning Liberty” has generated a lot of recent press. Following a long line of publications wary of higher education’s drift away from classical ideals, Lukianoff is more effective than most. That’s because he calls college administrators on the carpet for no small offense: First Amendment violations.

I had the chance to hear Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), speak at the University of Pennsylvania last month, and his career spent fighting draconian college speech codes deserves our attention. FIRE is a civil liberties nonprofit that pressures American higher education to uphold individual rights, free speech, freedom of association, freedom of conscience and honest inquiry — the kind of values historically associated with the marketplace of ideas. FIRE litigates cases and makes egregious incident of censorship on American campuses known to the public media.

Lukianoff detailed outrageous examples at plenty of universities. These Orwellian crack-downs include Yale University’s attempt to revoke an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote off a football T-shirt and Northeastern University’s prohibition of any email the administrators deem “annoying.” The Yale quote, if you’re curious, is “I think of all Harvard men as sissies,” from Fitzgerald’s 1920 novel This Side of Paradise.

It’s true that speech codes at private colleges like Swarthmore present somewhat trickier cases than public universities, since the Bill of Rights only applies to governmental power, not associations that students willingly enter into. Regardless, America’s colleges ought to be upholding the unbridled life of the mind. I doubt Swarthmore and other elite private schools want to make a habit of restricting student speech. Indeed, many students and faculty celebrate our campus as place where they can personally experiment and express themselves in a way they didn’t feel comfortable at home or in other outside communities. This is why it’s all the more disturbing that Swarthmore’s code earns a “red light” on FIRE’s website.

Lest you dismiss FIRE as some right-wing outfit with a bone to pick, Lukianoff describes himself as a lifelong Democrat and recently told the Wall Street Journal that he is a “passionate believer” in gay marriage and legal abortion. But these beliefs, Lukianoff insists, make him all the more defensive of free speech and open conversation in the public forum.

Swarthmore’s alarming ranking on FIRE.org stems mostly from our overbroad harrassment policy in which even “leers” or “jokes” can get you into serious trouble “whether or not they were made about or directed to the grievant and whether or not intended to insult or degrade.” Obviously harassment is a sensitive issue and a serious offense. But that means the accusation, when made, should be backed by clearly-written language and evidence of wrongdoing.

Otherwise, the College runs into the problem of enforcement, where less sympathetic student groups or persons are likelier to be held accountable for violations such as inappropriate “sexual innuendos.” When the policy language is vague, the administration is bound to look the other way when some advocacy groups break the rules, while other, less politically correct students have the book thrown at them.  With enforcement up to the administration’s interpretation and discretion, our overbroad speech rules wind up encouraging more bias, not less. In my experience, I’m unaware of any egregious censorship happening at Swarthmore. That’s a good thing, but we need clear and open speech policies that keep that the norm.

Though harassment is not protected by the First Amendment, it must meet a very specific legal definition. Namely, the Supreme Court in Davis v. Monroe writes that behavior must be “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, and that it so undermines and detracts from the victims’ educational experience, that the victim-students are effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.” Clearly this standard goes far beyond basic rudeness or an offensive comment.

FIRE works with universities to revise their speech policies so that they are clear, legal and consistent. It’s in our interest to do so not just from a moral standpoint but also for the administration to avoid liabilities. Hopefully Swarthmore and campuses across the country will take up the challenge, because we are by no means alone in our problematic code. Of the 364 institutions of higher education FIRE surveyed in 2009, 74 percent were found to have policies that curtail speech otherwise allowed under the Constitution.

Everyone here at Swarthmore, I’m willing to say, desires a safe and respectful learning environment. Part of that entails not wishing to be personally offended or to willingly offend others. But we cannot be so paralyzed by fear of offensiveness that we instead paralyze free speech. There is no guarantee against being offended in this world, especially not in a place like Swarthmore which purports to engage and debate some of life’s most heated questions in a rigorous academic setting.

As John Stuart Mill eloquently reminds us, “[T]he peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation, those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” Speak your mind, Swatties.

One Response to "Speak Loudly and Carry a Big Stick"

  1. Leeada  December 7, 2012 at 4:45 AM

    The only University education worth having is one in which you are rewarded by being offended, personally, on a continuous basis, and develop the intellect with which to inspect, with objectivity, that which offends you, as well as having the creativity to express often, that which others find offensive. Freedom of speech and expression is the freedom to offend others.

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