Mar 27 2015

Civility Codes and Free Speech


Civility Codes and Free Speech on Campus

Several months have elapsed since the last post, as the author completed the forthcoming book Palace of Ashes: China and the Decline of American Higher Education.

A lot has happened in the interim, including President Obama’s proposal to make two years of community college tuition free, the first National Adjunct Walkout Day in February, and who could forget the proposal by Purdue University President Mitch Daniels that his students try indentured servitude to a wealthy patron instead of student loans to finance their higher educations!

All of these important topics deserve discussion in subsequent posts, but let’s spend a few moments reviewing one particularly chilling development on American campuses—the throttling of free speech through so-called “civility codes” or “speech codes.”

According to Benjamin Ginsberg at Johns Hopkins University, these codes restrict “forms of speech and conduct that might have been seen as offensive or hostile by particular groups or designed to intimidate or harass individuals based on their racial, religious, social, gender, or other characteristics.” In reality, they are frequently used by campus administrators anxious to avoid vocal dissent from faculty and staff, and are disingenuously justified on the grounds that they protect the institution from lawsuits or that they are a “best-practice.”

However, the U.S. Department of Education generally warns against adopting anti-harassment codes, as they may infringe upon constitutionally guaranteed First-Amendment rights and protections. Nevertheless, when enacted, campus administrators can use them to bully or silence their critics, especially at private institutions, which offer broader leeway.

Recent examples of administrative overreach using “civility codes” include the censoring of faculty blogs, a revocation of tenure for private writings, the rescinding of a job offer for anti-Israeli tweets, the limiting of free speech to “zones” on campus, and even a prohibition on distributing copies of the US Constitution—on Constitution Day.

Fortunately for the principle of freedom, “civility codes” in higher education do not hold up well in American courts of law (even when they are written into institutional bylaws). Therefore, faculty members with the (slightly enhanced) free-speech protections of tenure are under a special obligation to use them for the benefit of their colleagues and students by defending free speech on campus whenever, and wherever, it is circumscribed.

Yet, it seems preposterous to have to mount a defense of free speech on American campuses in the twenty-first century, since that battle was fought in the 1960s, first at the University of California at Berkeley (along with civil rights, women’s rights, and protests against the Vietnam war) and subsequently on campuses around the nation.

In 1964 and 1965, students at UC Berkeley worked together to challenge the social and political status quo after restrictions on speech and bans on political activities on campus. When negotiations with then Chancellor Clark Kerr and his administration broke down, thousands of students occupied Sproul Hall in protest and defied calls for them to leave the premises. Their insubordination helped to protect free speech in the United States across the political spectrum for generations.

Conservative commentator David Brooks rustled feathers recently when he suggested that cartoons disparaging the Prophet Muhammad published by the left-leaning satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo (that triggered terrorist attacks on their office) “wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds” in a satirical student publication on any American campus over the last two decades.

Brooks argues “Americans may laud Charlie Hebdo for being brave enough to publish cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, but, if Ayaan Hirsi Ali is invited to campus, there are often calls to deny her a podium.” His reference to the Somali-born writer is most apt, for Brandeis University administrators revoked their offer of an honorary degree to Ali in 2014 after her criticisms of Islam drew ire from some members of the campus community. In cases like these, political correctness justifies the arbitration of the free exchange of ideas, a principle that the American university—at its best—represents.

Moreover, Brooks finds the slogan “Je Suis Charlie Hebdo,” embraced by members of the public in the wake of the attacks, somewhat hypocritical—since most people do not use the deliberatively provocative satire and sarcasm, which is the specialty of Charlie Hebdo, in their everyday interactions. Rather, in Brook’s estimation, most individuals try to show some respect for those who hold different beliefs or ideologies, and make an effort to listen rather than insult.

“Yet, at the same time,” he continues, “most of us know that provocateurs and other outlandish figures serve useful public roles. Satirists and ridiculers expose our weakness and vanity when we are feeling proud. They puncture the self-puffery of the successful. They level social inequality by bringing the mighty low.”

If the expressions of provocative and insulting individuals are repressed by codes of civility, which demand that every viewpoint be hallowed, then where will there be room on campus for the creative people who challenge the status quo, with its refined manners and pretentious tastes, by poking fun at it?

Some of our greatest writers brandished trenchant sarcasm and biting satire as a weapon to deflate the affectations of those in power: Aristophanes, Rabelais, Voltaire, Cao Xueqin, Mark Twain, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, and even Jon Stewart—to name but a few. When critical voices are repressed on campus by “civility codes,” how will the American college and university remain an important guardian of democracy and free speech for the nation?

More troubling still, if democracy and the free exchange of ideas cannot survive on campus, where will these principles endure in our society?