Censuring Free Speech on American Campuses

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Censuring Free Speech on American Campuses

By: Todd J. Zywicki
Posted on February 11, 2015 FREE Insights


Introduction by John Baden


Prof. Todd Zywicki, a member of FREE's Board of Trustees, is an economist and law professor at George Mason University.  He is a graduate of Dartmouth, Clemson, and U VA and editor of the Supreme Court Economic Review.  Todd is a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal and a prolific scholar.   

While an elected member of Dartmouth's Board of Trustees Todd joined the battle against that university's enforcement of political correctness.  This week's FREE Insights is a shortened version of Todds' article  "Meet the Mid-Level Bureaucrats Who Impose Speech Codes on America’s Universities".  It was published by the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy on February 4th.  

Todd challenges the common view that left-wing professors enforce a stultifying political correctness antithetical to a university's ideal mission of free inquiry. Instead, at George Mason University and many other universities, a separate office staffed with bureaucrats lacking academic appointments enforce the progressive code of no offense. 

When reading Todd's piece I better understood why the term "bureaucracy" always carries some crust of derision.  


The university where I teach, George Mason University (GMU), has a speech code, which purports to regulate the speech of students in the interest of civility and educational values.

There is a separate office, called “University Life” staffed with specialists without academic appointments.  It writes the rules, enforces them, and adjudicates violations of the rules of student conduct, including speech. Though it establishes some of the most important academic policies of the university, it effectively operates autonomously, resistant to inputs from the academic side of the house, even from well-intentioned law professors who would like to see their school live up to the highest ideals of the Enlightenment.

I testify as an expert, having spent the past five years, on and off, trying (and failing) to get our university’s speech code fixed. 

The story begins in 2005, when T.J. Rodgers, Peter Robinson and I, as members of the Dartmouth College Board of Trustees, stressed the need for Dartmouth to abolish its speech code. We met with success and that year Dartmouth abolished its speech code and was awarded a green light rating by FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education http://www.thefire.org/) which it retains to this day, despite some backsliding.

Fresh off that experience, I turned my attention to GMU. FIRE didn’t like our speech code because there were problems and ambiguities, such as its prohibition of any communication that might cause “injury, distress, or emotional … discomfort” and requiring any posters to receive prior approval by the university to make certain they were consistent with the “educational mission of the University” (a standard that is nowhere defined).

It was then that my street-level education about modern university administration began. It is all very well and good for the president and provost to have views, but actual policies and language in which they are conveyed are determined by the bureaucracy.

That might be a tolerable (albeit odd) arrangement if it produced acceptable results, but the main stream of thought inside the University Life bureaucracy is decidedly hostile to free expression. For example, at one point one of the administrators told me that vagueness in a speech code is actually a positive virtue, because that way, students can be disciplined for disruptive conduct or speech that doesn’t actually violate any rule. 

Speech codes come from a bureaucracy professionally dedicated to keeping late adolescent/young adults who have to live with one another calm, unoffended, and out of the newspapers. Those objectives may well be worthy, but they are not the main purpose of higher education, which often ideally demands that students confront ideas they find deeply disturbing.

Perhaps even more worrisome, when given the choice, today's generation of students sides with the speech-repressing administrators rather than the principles of free speech. For example, when a blue-ribbon committee of professors at the University of Chicago recently announced a ringing affirmation of the principles of free speech, the editors of the student newspaper took the committee to task for their absolutist tone, which the students complained was insufficiently sensitive to the need to suppress so-called "hate speech. It is depressing to think politically correct sentiments represent the authentic voice of a younger generation. Having heard hardly any other message from their culture, some have fully embraced the gods of political correctness, or more accurately stated, political correctness.

It is even more depressing when one considers that the most apparently secure fruits such as reason not dogma of the Enlightenment are only one generation away from extinction. This loss occurs if they are they are adhered to only by the older generation while despised by the younger.

Of all the many ideas that constitute our civilization, none is more central or important than the norm of free inquiry. The last place one should entrust these norms such as this one for safekeeping and propagation is to a bureaucracy that is dedicated to peace and quiet. Yet today, it is they, not the faculty, who are the true enemies of free speech on campus.


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