Why would a government, organization or a particular person institute censorship policies in the United States? The Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights clearly take after notable values of the Enlightenment, including the creation of democratic institutions, the rejection of dogmatic policies and the freedom of speech and expression. A curious by product of these values was the acceptance and promotion of free and open debate. The idea that all ideas must be allowed to be brought forwarded so they could undergo the brutal trials of public discourse. This was a form of ideological naturalism, in which only the ideas that stood up best to scrutiny would survive. It is by this process that scientific progress is made and by extension, evolutionary naturalism is exactly the way species better able to adapt become more successful while weaker species die off. Universities developed from scientific research academies and were groomed to idealize and promote the ideological naturalism that drives human innovation and true progress. However, throughout the 1990’s, colleges and universities quietly created speech codes, in the name of political correctness and ‘safe speech’, and now target both student and faculty who practice their First Amendment rights. These practices are antithetical to not only what it means to be a free society, but also it prevents colleges and universities from fully promoting a true exchange of ideas.
The black gentleman whose comedy musical was interrupted by administration supported hecklers, is Chris Lee, who attended Washington State University in 2005, and was harassed by the University and University supported hecklers. Chris’s musical was entitled Passion of the Musical and was a tongue in cheek, ‘South Park-esqe’, kind of play that found the offense Christian groups on campus. After Mr. Lee contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education it was revealed that the administration had both paid for and trained the hecklers to scream ‘I’m offended’ and making threats towards the actors until they had to shut the play down. After formal warning from FIRE and public outrage at the violation, WSU changed course and allowed Mr. Lee to perform his play, and warned the hecklers to cease there outbursts. As a Catholic, a student and an American citizen, I found the behavior of these Christian groups, which included Catholic Student Center, absolutely deplorable.
So what prompted all of these speech codes to come about in the 90’s and why were they instituted? This goes back to the emergence of political correctness culture and a strive for greater diversity. In his book Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and The End of American Debate, Greg Lukianoff explains that these speech codes were sought by campus administrations not with the intent of silencing certain opinions but rather creating a safer atmosphere for students of historically marginalized groups. Lukianoff refers to this as ‘GIRA’ or “Good Intentions Run Amok”. We are even provided several historical examples throughout the history of the US.
“John Adams thought he was saving the country the country from ruin by instituting the Alien and Sedition Acts… Northerners believed that abolitionists needed to be silenced thought they were preventing a bloody civil war… the communist-hunters of the two red scares thought they were guarding the nation from totalitarianism and, eventually, nuclear destruction.”
Some may ask, isn’t worth censoring someone or something to create a sense of safety and to protect students from potentially harmful language or offending ideas? I argue absolutely not. We already saw in the video above that only 30.3% of seniors in college would say its safe to hold unpopular opinions on campus and only 18.8% of faculty would feel safe holding unpopular opinions. So clearly a sense of safety is not being fostered at universities. Students must constantly be aware of what they say, because, as it is currently, a misplaced opinion or a slip of the tongue can get you reprimanded, suspended or expelled. The purpose of these speech codes was to make campuses more inviting and diverse, ironically to promote greater intellectual and ideological diversity. In a crude way they have cut off their nose to spite their face. College and university campuses have attained a great amount of diversity that is ultimately meaningless because students are either policed into thinking a certain way or they are banned from talking about the subject all together. It is incredibly insulting because it essentially treats adult United States citizens as weak and infantile. One example, covered in the magazine Dissent an African American student argued against a mostly white rally at N.Y.U, calling for safe speech. “The black student then looked at his white colleague and said that it was condescending to say that blacks have to be “protected” from racist speech. “It is more racist and insulting,” he emphasized, “to say that to me than to call me a n****r.”
By limiting what can be discussed universities are not only belittling us, as grown students, but also they are standing in the way of human progress and ideological naturalism. Potentially enlightening debates, conversations and movements are being silenced and banned for the sake of political correctness and ‘safe speech’. We must protect the free speech of everyone because we you never know when your opinion and speech will become the unpopular view point on campus. Professor Alan Charles Kors, co-founder of FIRE, illuminates why free speech is vital to campuses and why the free speech of all must be protected. It is a fairly long interview, so if you find extra time or need background noise, I highly suggest you listen in. This should be the position we all have on our freedom of speech.
I know that this blog went on for a fairly long while and thank you guys for reaching the end. I have posted my resources and questions below. Hope you all have a wonderful Winter Break and a happy New Year.
Do you believe that there should be censorship on campus? What about in general society? If so how far should it go and why?
Do you believe that the Founding Fathers meant for any kind of censorship when they drafted the Bill of Rights?
Have you ever felt censored on campus or that it may not be safe to express an unpopular opinion?
Encounter Books; Campus Censorship and The End of American Debate, Nov. 13, 2012 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3vgGqlZGGE)
theFIREorg; Free Speech is Under Attack, May 26, 2011 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w-S-rPbcwRE)
FIRE. (2005). Washington State University: Administrative Support for Heckler’s Veto of Student Play. Retrieved from Foundation for Individual Rights in Education: https://www.thefire.org/cases/washington-state-university-administrative-support-for-hecklers-veto-of-student-play-2/
Hentoff, N. (1991). “Speech Codes” On The Campus And Problems Of Free Speech . Dissent, pp. 546-549.
Kors, P. A. (2013, August 14). Who’s Too Weak to Live With Freedom? Prof. Alan Charles Kors on His Fight for Free Expression. (F. f. Education, Interviewer)
Lukianoff, G. (2012). Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and The End of American Debate. New York: Encounter Books.