Freedom Vote Sends Speech Police Packing at University of Wisconsin

Article excerpt

Reversing the speech-code craze on campus, the University of Wisconsin at Madison has called off the speech police by becoming the first major university in the nation at which a faculty vote abolished all campus-harassment codes.

It was former chancellor Donna Shalala who established Wisconsin's stringent speech regulations a decade ago, setting limits on expression as well as punishment for anyone who dared to stray too far from the current orthodoxies of the left. "American society is racist and sexist," she proclaimed at the time. "In the 1960s, we were frustrated about all this. But now, we are in a position to do something about it." In a position, too, to bludgeon anyone who's right of center into silence.

Wisconsin's students succeeded in getting Shalala's speech code declared unconstitutional in 1991. The school's "content-based restrictions on speech have the effect of limiting the diversity of ideas among students, thereby preventing the `robust exchange of ideas' which intellectually diverse campuses provide," ruled federal District Judge Robert Warren. "Suppression of speech," he concluded, "even where the speech's content appears to have little value and great costs, amounts to governmental thought control."

Left intact by Warren's decision was a separate faculty-speech code, now voided, that imposed punishment on professors who created an "intimidating or demeaning" environment, a statute covering "all expression, teaching materials, student assignments, lectures and instructional techniques" that anyone of a particular "gender, race, cultural background, ethnicity, sexual orientation or handicap" might find "objectionable."

As a footnote, it's the same Shalala -- now President Clinton's secretary of health and human services -- who recently lost a unanimous decision in the U.S. Court of Appeals, United Seniors USA vs. Shalala. The court ruled that the 1997 federal regulation that prevented doctors from treating any Medicare patients for two years if they contracted privately for services with any Medicare patient, without cost to the taxpayers, imposed an unconstitutional harm on seniors by denying them control over their own health care and private spending. As at Wisconsin, Shalala's I-know-what's-good-for-you central-planning paradigm was judged to be in direct violation of fundamental American rights and principles.

Shalala, unfortunately, hardly was the only true believer in academe who sought to create unhostile environments and ensure common decency through thought control, coerced sensitivity, mandatory sensitivity-training sessions that smacked of political re-education camps and the suppression of free speech. Across the nation, said Jeane Kirkpatrick, universities were turning into "islands of repression in a sea of freedom." Choosing censorship and shunning over counterspeech and free thought, the "neo-McCarthyites of the righteous left," in Nat Hentoff's phrase, had become wholly fearful of lively debate and fully allergic to contentious places.

"The most serious problems of freedom of expression in our society today exist on our campuses," said former Yale University president Benno Schmidt. "On many campuses around the country, perhaps most, there is little resistance to growing pressure to suppress and to punish, rather than to answer, speech that offends notions of civility and community. …