The February issue of Townhall Magazine includes an in-depth examination of campus speech codes and what they mean for our nation. Helen Whalen-Cohen's piece, "Say What?", takes a look at the history of speech codes, their unconstitutionality and what we can do about them. Here's an excerpt:
It's like something out of "1984."
In George Orwell's dystopia, "thought police" monitored citizens to make sure that they didn't disparage The Party. In today's world, college students all over the country face restrictions on speech in the form of "speech codes." These dicta include harassment policies, "free speech zones," "tolerance" policies and outright bans on "hate speech." The aim of these policies is noble -- to prevent discord and foster respect on campus -- but in the culture of political correctness run amok, such proscriptions often eclipse students' rights to express themselves freely.
Speech codes are regulations prohibiting speech that is otherwise protected by the First Amendment. They are prevalent -- and pernicious -- on college campuses.
How are student bodies affected by this wave of political correctness? Is it helping campuses maintain civility or causing deeper harm?
Speech restrictions no longer have to be issued from on high. After being immersed in a culture that values political correctness over First Amendment rights for long enough, students are learning to censor each other with two words: "I'm offended."
Greg Lukianoff calls it "unlearning liberty." As the president of FIRE, he has watched students trend away from discussion and towards policing one another. In an interview with the website Spiked, he points out that students are learning to let offense trump discussion, ending conversation: "There's a very predictable result, which is that if you allow the ultimate trump card against free speech to be a claim that ‘I'm offended,' then people learn very quickly to say they are offended." As Lukianoff notes, students learn to call on campus administration to quiet voices that they would rather not hear. What role will they expect the government to play in their lives after graduation?
Indeed, many students advocate speech codes today, a product of learning that they have a right not to be offended and that that right can be violated by someone else's thoughts. Campus policies such as "Stop Bias" are adding fuel to the fire. It asks students to find and report instances of bias anonymously (including bias surrounding "actual or perceived" marital status). The school's website even encourages students to report political differences as a form of bias, saying that Barack Obama or Sarah Palin can be listed as the "victims." This is not an example from Stalinist Russia, but Syracuse University. Such programs are ostensibly meant to create a safe space for discussion. But will encouraging students to police each other accomplish that goal?
Programs like these teach that the right response to offense is not debate, but censorship, and that it is appropriate to turn to university administrators to remedy the supposed harm. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me -- until I get to college.
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