Here in America, the danger to free expression is beginning to be greatest where it should be most defended, that is to say, within the walls of the academy.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) just issued its 4th Annual Top 10 List for “threats to free speech on campus.”
As Kirsten Powers said of the list, “Read it and weep.” I read it, and not only because my college made the list for a case I’m all too familiar with, but because my own experience introduced me to FIRE’s work supporting free speech across the nation.
Sadly, there is enough free-expression suppression going on in our institutions of higher learning to keep FIRE busy for decades – far too many administrators, faculty & students treat the U.S. Constitution as if it was something they dimly remember from a boring high school fiction class. Taken as whole, this year’s Top Ten list makes an excellent case for regarding higher education as a very expensive absurdist play. As for weeping, peruse the list for yourself and see if Powers isn’t onto something.
The utter stupidity of the knee-jerk “I’m offended” reactions is stunning. An artist at the University of Iowa set up a temporary art installation – a statue of a robed KKK wizard made out of a collage of newspaper articles covering racial violence from 1908-2010 – and students instantly assumed his “statement art” was making a statement celebrating racism rather than decrying it. This is rather like seeing a cross from the highway and assuming whoever put it there is a fan of crucifixion.
Instead of being embarrassed by their faux pas, the intolerant students demanded that the statue be whisked away out of sight, and so it was. The administration soothed them predictably, assuring offended students that their campus had “no room for divisive, insensitive, and intolerant displays.” Further, UI President Sally Mason made a public apology to students who felt “terrorized” by the artwork and for U.I.’s failure to provide a “respectful, all-inclusive, educational environment.” U.I. even allowed “victimized” students to put off exams and other work.
And pretty much anything terrorizes college students these days. Ever gone to a birthday party at Chevy’s and taken home a sombrero? You might want to bury it quietly in the backyard on a moonless night. If caught, don’t be surprised if you, like the ADPi sorority at Cal-State Fullerton, find yourself coordinating a mandatory training session covering “cultural competencies and diversity.” Members of the sorority were so sentenced after committing the grievous sin of serving tacos at their “Taco Tuesday” recruiting event, while wearing “sombreros and other Mexican garb.”
What’s next? Will just liking tacos make us guilty of dietary aggression? Could I utter the words “Spaghetti Western” without being hauled off to get my cultural competencies rearranged — or will I get a pass because I’m half Italian? Perhaps only my Irish half will require “re-education.” So . . . is it offensive if I set out a baked potato buffet on top of my Irish linen tablecloth, or should I switch it out for a more neutral tablecloth first?
And could someone please explain to me how it is “sensitive” to FORCE rogue students or faculty to take sensitivity training whose sole purpose is to make their opinions conform to campus-sanctified PC opinion? “All-inclusive” is clearly short for “all-who-believe-exactly-what-we-believe-inclusive.” Those of you who don’t toe the line need to be excluded and punished, even for the way you dress off campus: Such demands should be recognized for what they are: sanctioned bullying.
As FIRE President Greg Lukianoff argues, colleges “not only fall short on promises of free expression and academic freedom but openly suppress constitutionally protected speech on campus by using tools such as speech codes to shut down forms of expression that might be uncomfortable, disagreeable or even offensive to some members of the campus community.”
I remember sitting, decades ago, in a college philosophy class and hearing “I think; therefore I am.” But “thinking” is just so . . . passé. Too many seem to have embraced a new version asserting their own existence: “I am; therefore I’m offended. Placate me.” Academia talks the talk of “diversity,” and while it works hard to bring in employees and students who LOOK different on the outside, it seems dedicated to producing Stepford students and faculty who think exactly alike on all the de rigueur PC isms of the moment.
And my college? Modesto Junior College stopped student Robert Van Tuinen from passing out free copies of the Constitution on Constitution Day. Months later, after paying a $50,000 settlement to Van Tuinen, the unrepentant Chancellor wrote an op-ed in the local paper asserting that he wasn’t prevented from handing out the Constitutions after all – i.e., don’t believe your lyin’ eyes. You can watch the video here – but if it brings back horrible memories of the awful absurdist play your high school teacher made you sit through, don’t complain. This is your official Trigger Warning.