College speech codes are the American Left’s special shame, and it the time for them to go the way of parietal hours and mandatory chapel attendance is overdue. There are monstrosities of thought control in schools across the nation, but those in state universities are especially offensive and ominous, since they are in slam-dunk defiance of the First Amendment prohibiting government restrictions on speech. As Barton Hinkle notes in an eye-opening piece in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, not only are state schools stomping on free speech, state schools dedicated to the legacy on the men who wrote the First Amendment are doing it. If there is anything more unethical than educators stifling thought and the expression of it, that would be it.
Hinkle’s article focuses on speech codes at Virginia codes and universities, and the news isn’t all bad. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organization dedicated to protecting free speech on campus recently gave an award to the university founded by Thomas Jefferson, the University of Virginia. There was a time when UVA embraced speech codes, but no more. Also winning praise from FIRE is Jefferson’s alma mater, William & Mary, meaning that Virginia has two of the thirteen colleges in the nation—that’s thirteen out of 2,363 four year colleges—that respect the First Amendment enough to follow it as well as teach it.
That would make the Virginia Founding Fathers proud, but then there is the dark side. Virginia’s James Madison University, for example, insists that “free speech and peaceful assemblies must be registered with Madison Union Scheduling at least 48 hours in advance.” That’s right: you have to get advance permission to engage in “free speech.” The Constitution’s author, Virginian James Madison, is doing barrel rolls in his vault over this desecration of his legacy by the school bearing his name, but fellow Virginian and Founding Father George Mason must be doing post-mortem backflips. The university named in honor of the man who got the Bill of Rights incorporated into Madison’s document maintains a speech code that prohibits “any form of bigotry . . . . whether verbal, written, psychological, direct, or implied.”
Anyone who has followed the intense political debates over the past year knows what that means…or could mean. Opposing illegal immigration? Bigotry! Suggesting Barack Obama is a less than adept leader? Implied bigotry! Drawing a cartoon with no Muslims in it that asks “Where’s the Muslim?” ? Psychological bigotry! Writing that having a large Islamic structure looming over the very spot where 3000 citizens died at the hands of terrorists shouting the name of Allah is deliberately insensitive to the legitimate feelings of many New Yorkers and Americans? Written bigotry! Juan Williams admitting that all the attempted terror attacks by Muslims in airplanes makes him viscerally nervous when he sees someone in Islamic garb getting on his flight? Verbal bigotry!
Some have correctly pointed out that college speech codes like George Mason University’s are seldom enforced, in part because they would get on a fast track to the courts if they were. That doesn’t mean that the codes don’t have a chilling effect on discourse, though; they do. They also set perverse and un-American cultural norms, and constitute educational malpractice by teaching students that not merely First Amendment restrictions, but also the repressive Orwellian goal of politically correct thought-control underlying them are legitimate, acceptable, desirable and normal. Such institutions are laying the foundation for an educated citizenry that will be willing to stifle speech and debate by law whenever a consensus determines that such speech is “dangerous” or “offensive”—exactly the kind of speech that launched America over two centuries ago.
Graduates will go on to work for reliable, virtuous-thinking, self-righteous and “un-biased” journalistic organizations, like National Public Radio, that will celebrate the First Amendment while distorting it, firing future Juan Williamses for expressing thoughts they find biased, and intimidating those who would follow his example.
And George Mason will roll, ever faster, in his grave.