Where Free Speech Is Less Free
Byline: Sol Schindler, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Although I disagree with every word you say, I shall defend to the death your right to say it. This stirring proclamation by Voltaire could have been said by Thomas Jefferson - or any of his associates - since free speech, a mainstay of 18th-century Enlightenment, fueled the American Revolution and is incorporated in our Constitution. In the first half of the previous century, a common phrase was It's a free country; I can say what I want. That phrase is not so common today, but free speech is still an American ideal, or so most of us think.
In his new book, Unlearning Liberty, Greg Lukianoff shows that free speech is widely restricted on American college campuses. Tuition costs are no guarantee of protection because even the most expensive and most highly respected colleges fall ill to this disease.
The assaults on free speech take many forms, but perhaps the most common are the widely prevalent and usually awkwardly constructed speech codes. For example, Drexel University told us in 2006 that harassment (which, of course, was banned) includes inconsiderate jokes and inappropriately directed laughter. What is a considerate joke and what would make it inconsiderate?
In 2007, Florida Gulf Coast University banned expressions deemed inappropriate. In 2011, Mansfield University stated that freedom from discrimination prohibits any behavior that would diminish another's self-esteem or their striving for competence, and the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater prohibited obnoxious jerk harassment, including sexual suggestiveness, jokes, catcalls, whistles, remarks, etc. The author's organization, Fire (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), offered awards for the most obnoxious speech code of the month and never had trouble finding candidates.
One of the more tragic examples of university administrative overreach is the case of Charles Plinton. The University of Akron paid an ex-felon $50 for every name given in purported drug transactions. Mr. Plinton was named and went to trial in a criminal court. The case was thrown out after 40 minutes and Mr. Plinton was cleared. However, the university persisted in its own deliberations and expelled Mr. Plinton. Because no other college would take him, he stayed at home musing and torturing himself for a year and then committed suicide.
One should note that in today's universities it is not student bodies or faculty committees that enforce speech codes; it is officers of the administration. It also should be noted that administrative staff is now beginning to outnumber faculty on many campuses, giving a different cast to university life and raising student costs outrageously. …