Jewish World Review Feb. 9, 2004 / 17 Shevat, 5764
Campus censors in retreat
An actual debate on the merits of racial
preferences has taken place on an
American campus, Utah State University.
Whether the Guinness World Records book
is interested in this news is not certain. I
know I am. Astonishingly, the university
administration did not step in to halt the
proceedings on the grounds that feelings
might be hurt. The debate was civil, with
some booing and cheering on both sides. Some students seemed a bit testy
or angry. But as one student sponsor of the debate said, "That's part of
politics and discussing divisive issues." This breakthrough raises a startling
question: Is it possible that other universities will begin experimenting with
Could be. The fog of censorship on campus is beginning to lift, thanks to
the pressure of litigation, bad publicity, and ridicule from a new and more
pugnacious generation of collegians. The litigation is being handled by groups
such as the Center for Individual Rights, the Alliance Defense Fund,
and--most spectacularly--by the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual
Rights in Education (FIRE), which is now a major player in the campus wars.
These groups have been winning free-speech cases one after another,
creating momentum that is forcing many censorship-minded administrators
into a defensive crouch.
Guilty. For most of the 1990s, speech restrictions met little resistance. After the courts struck down campus speech codes, universities simply (and dishonestly) recast the speech codes as behavior and antiharassment policies, using extremely broad language to forbid expression that annoys, embarrasses, or ridicules. The language made almost every accused student guilty as charged. The mainstream press ignored the issue, and students generally held their tongues, fearing retaliation. Now the students know how to call FIRE, and FIRE knows how to call Fox News. "The difference is that students now know they can win," said Thor Halvorssen, who recently stepped down as the chief executive officer of FIRE. Sometimes the victories are astonishingly easy. When FIRE sued Citrus College in California, the college quickly yielded, lifting its policy banning all "offensive . . . expression or language" and eliminating its policy of confining student protest to three small areas on campus.
The Center for Individual Rights is working out a settlement in the case of a
white student punished for "disruption" after quietly posting a flier at the
multicultural center of California Polytechnic State University. There was no
disruption. The black students who complained simply didn't like the flier,
which promoted a speech by a black conservative author. Cal Poly's action
seemed clearly unconstitutional but typical of what many colleges got away
with when nobody was watching. Terry Pell of CIR says his friends, left and
right, are appalled when they hear about the Cal Poly case. CIR's attorney in
the case, Carol Sobel, frequently works for the American Civil Liberties
Union. And Pell says that judges of all political persuasions are appalled
when CIR brings them cases like this, too.
Another factor in the new atmosphere is that conservative students are now a
bigger presence on campus. A Harvard poll in the fall found that 61 percent of
U.S. college students supported President Bush, at a time when only 53
percent of all Americans supported him. Last fall, in the annual UCLA survey
of college freshmen, 21 percent of students identified themselves as
conservative, compared with 24 percent who said they were liberal--down
from a peak of 38 percent liberal in 1971.
Many conservative students favor satire and ridicule as campus weapons.
The best example is the bake sales on more than a dozen campuses
mocking affirmative action in college admissions by selling cookies at $1 to
white males and 50 cents to Latino or black males. Many of these sales
were shut down by campus administrators, thus demonstrating how dumb
and repressive college officials can be. (Similar "wage gap" cookie sales by
feminists ran into no such trouble.) At Northwestern, the administrator who
halted the sale said, "This is not a bake sale, and your permit is only for a
bake sale!" At the University of Washington, the administration said that the
cookie sellers had failed to apply for a food permit and that the administration
did not in fact shut them down. FIRE produced official university documents
contradicting both arguments. Watch for more bake sales and more
anticensorship stunts. Repressive speech policies are under heavy pressure
and starting to break down.
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