Private universities have many advantages over public ones, as PolicyMic writer Jordan Wolf has argued. However, I do not agree with his point that private universities are not bound by the constraints of the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. Universities (both public and private) have established speech codes designed to force their students to exhibit what administrators perceive to be admirable behavior. However well-intentioned such codes may be, they needlessly target unpopular speakers and undermine a university’s core mission.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has been cataloguing abuses of university speech codes for years. Examples include Yale University, whose unwritten speech policy allows administrators to punish any speech they find inappropriate or undesirable. The Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity was recently suspended for five years after its pledges were made to chant a crude limerick.
Administrators at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst were forced to revise its speech code after negative publicity surrounding their policy that required student groups to give five days notice before they “publicly express a controversial opinion on campus.” The speech code at Claremont McKenna College forbids students from even sending e-mails that “might be construed as harassment or disparagement based on race, color, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, age, disability, or religious or political beliefs.” Remember that e-mail you sent to the Young Democrats listserve describing the president of the College Republicans’ debate style as “quintessential neocon hackery?” At Claremont McKenna, you would be subject to disciplinary action for it.
If there were ever a place where people ought to feel comfortable expressing controversial opinions, it is the university. Scholars in an academic setting are continually challenged to push the boundaries of our current understanding of nature, society, and the human condition. To do this, they require the freedom to question the cherished assumptions of popular worldviews and culture at large. Speech codes place unnecessary restrictions on what students and faculty can say and think, which threatens the very mission of the university.
Surely, freedom of speech can be abused. However, advocates of speech codes exaggerate the threat of genuinely appalling ideas taking root in our nation’s more enlightened institutions. Unworthy ideas are quickly countered and dismissed by brighter minds. Just a few months ago, an annoyed student at UCLA posted a video to YouTube expressing her racially tinged frustration with “Asians” talking loudly in the library. The social ostracism of the backlash was so devastating that she dropped out of school a few weeks later.
John Stuart Mill’s defense of free speech in On Liberty rings as true today as in the 19th century; an open forum of ideas is the best way to extinguish falsehood and sharpen minds. Speech codes, to the extent that they stifle free discourse, undermine the intellectual dynamism of a university as well as jeopardize the education of the unlucky few who are wrongfully disciplined for expressing their thoughts in public.
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