Thursday, May 31, 2007

Reflections on Campus Censorship

The Volokh Conspiracy links to a very provocative brief essay on campus censorship and its historical parallels. The article in question comes from the Spring 2007 FIRE Quarterly (link in PDF, p.2):

I have always found it fascinating that colleges and universities—which tend to believe themselves to be centers of perfect open-mindedness and progressive thought—so often end up echoing the censors of bygone eras. As we note in FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus, for example, administrators’ justifications for punishing politically incorrect, ideologically
incompatible, or simply inconvenient speech at times echo the rationale of southern slave owners in the early 19th century who wished to ban abolitionist speech because it “inflicted emotional injury” on slave owners. As we often have to point out, while politeness is a virtue, it is of minuscule importance when compared with robust debate and discussion.

The pattern that strikes me the most, however, is the tendency of administrators to sound like the censors of the Victorian era—morally infallible, plugged into absolute truth and engaged in saving the country’s soul from incivility or impropriety.

Take Johns Hopkins University, for example, where President William Brody imposed an extraordinary speech code in the wake of the “Halloween in the Hood”/Justin Park controversy (covered in detail on page 4) as part of a series of efforts to “build a stronger community.” The code provides, in relevant part, that “Rude, disrespectful behavior is unwelcome and will not be tolerated,” and that “Every member of our community will be held accountable for creating a welcoming workplace for all.”

The code, by its breadth and anachronistic priggishness, turns common student interaction into actionable campus offenses. Because such a code is impossible to enforce uniformly (as virtually all students are “disrespectful” at some point), the only option for Hopkins is to enforce this code selectively. It therefore virtually guarantees arbitrary punishments and viewpoint discrimination. President Brody should ask himself: why would a parent wish to send a child to a college that maintains policies that mean his or her son or daughter may be punished at any time for normal college age behavior? Why would students wish to attend a university where their
academic careers are so tenuously protected?

(Volokh link courtesy of Instapundit)


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