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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

"Idealism increases in direct proportion to one's distance from the problem." - John Galsworthy

***

Cracking the speech code

"For some 15 dark years, American academia has acquiesced in, if not demanded, the suppression of its most fundamental rights. Speech codes--the "verbal conduct" restrictions in colleges' "harassment" policies--have been pervasive on our campuses...

The difficulty of restoring free speech at Wisconsin is ironic, given the school's dramatic history of academic freedom. In 1894, Oliver E. Wells, a member of the state Board of Regents, charged Professor Richard T. Ely with teaching and advocating "socialism."...

[The committee] not only exonerated him, but proclaimed the value of a campus where one could express oneself without fear: "Whatever be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found."...

The code was breathtakingly vague and offered frightening discretion to any panel charged with implementing it. Professors were investigated for violations of both its instructional and noninstructional provisions, drawing them into long, Kafkaesque procedures where they had no clear knowledge of the charges against them, no confrontation with accusers, and no rights to formal hearings. In short, at a state university, they found themselves both investigated for their speech and deprived of even minimal due process.

A professor of art history, during a period of heated curricular and ideological debate within his department, was treated derisively by students on the other side. Annoyed at a repeated, mocking salutation, he replied to them, "Sieg Heil!" As a result, he was investigated for anti-Semitism and other "isms" for a year. A professor of philosophy used the term Injuns in a class, and he too was investigated. A professor of history failed to use gender-neutral language, and he, too, was subjected to an inquisition. In the course of such proceedings, professors were asked intrusive questions about their friendships, their views of sexuality, their inner beliefs, and their values...

Shepard joined the committee, he tells me, wholly open-minded, but, like the other two students, he kept asking for a "justification" for the code. He was amazed by how little justification the proponents could offer. By the end of three weeks, he and the other two students arrived at a common position, "without caucusing," because of their skepticism about why anyone would want to silence anyone else at a university. "At first," Shepard says, "a lot of faculty members wrote us off, just assuming that being students, we blindly would support a speech code, especially because we were gay, female, and Asian-American female."...

For Shepard, the year's deepest lesson was the gulf between the rhetoric of "minority" student leaders and the views of the constituencies they were supposed to represent. For example, the Ten Percent Society, a gay and lesbian organization on campus, voted in November 1998 on the majority and minority reports of the ad hoc committee. It split down the middle, barely favoring the majority report. On the gay student listserve, many students wrote about the essential value of free speech. The president of the society, however, sent a message saying that now that a vote had been taken, she expected them all to show solidarity and to end any opposition to the stronger version of the code. She informed Shepard, he told me sadly, that he was a disgrace to every gay student at Wisconsin.

To Shepard, this incident signaled "how this small number of leaders is so out of touch with actual minority students." In his words, "There is a handful of self-appointed leftist activists who claim the right to speak for every minority on this campus." Far from being representative of those minorities, these activists "are some of the most authoritarian, oppressive people I've ever met." They try to intimidate a campus and chill debate: "Anyone who challenges their views is called `sexist,' `racist,' or `homophobe,'" he says.

"Although they claim to be fighting for equality and freedom for minority students," he concludes, "they silence any opposition within their minority group." Shepard saw the issue in straightforward terms. "It makes me cringe to defend bigots," he says, "but that's part of what defending the First Amendment is all about."

Amy Kasper also had a problem with so-called student leaders. They testified to almost "universal support" of the code, she tells me, when, in fact, the student body appeared deeply divided on the issue... everyone simply assumed that the two of them, "students from historically oppressed groups," instinctively would support the code. They were denounced as "dupes" and "traitors" for opposing it...

Fighting bigotry by means of oppression was useless. Indeed, she insists, it "has the opposite effect; it makes people bitter; and it is a horrible assault upon the conscience."

"The tide is changing," she says. She is sure her generation understands the sad irony of fighting for equal rights with arbitrary power: "History constantly has shown us that every time you give a coercive authority the power to censor, it is abused, and minority groups suffer the most."...

"We all wanted to know what our professors really thought. We didn't want them to be muzzled or gagged."

For Bretz, the fundamental issue was deeper than the legal or semantic technicalities that the committee kept debating: "How could we, as students, expect to have freedom of speech ourselves without our faculty having it?"...

Ken Thomas, a psychologist, observed that in one generation Wisconsin had gone from standing for academic freedom to standing for political correctness. He noted that "speech codes are totally inconsistent with the sifting and winnowing tradition," adding that "guests on the Jay Leno show probably fear censorship less than UW professors."

Biochemist Lawrence Kahan reflected on the fact that he used the example of drunken drivers in his classroom: "If you are an alcoholic...you may feel this example derogates you on the basis of your disability." Ken Mayer, a political scientist, proclaimed a speech code similar to a flag burning amendment, calling them both inappropriate.

Movingly, Javier Calderon, a professor of music who described living under dictatorial regimes in Latin America, expressed his dismay that colleagues would limit their own freedoms, describing the Bill of Rights as something "precious." Silvia Montiglio, a classicist, expressed her confidence in students' intellectual powers and denounced the sponsors of speech codes as "ideologues."...

Most of their examples further alarmed anyone who cared about free speech: "Professor showed slides and made comments that made female students uncomfortable"; "Complainant feels faculty makes light of homophobia during lecture"; "Complainant reports prevalent homophobia and heterosexism in a language class"; "Faculty allegedly made insulting reference to the student's country (other than the U.S.)." Presumably, an insulting reference to the United States would not have been actionable.

Minority group leaders also had been searching for two months for incidents to relate, but their offering blew up on them. Amelia Rideau, a junior English major and vice chairwoman of the Black Student Union, told the Faculty Senate at its February meeting how a professor teaching Chaucer had used the word niggardly (she was unaware of the related controversy, the week before, in Washington, D.C.), and how he continued to use it even after she told him that she was offended. He was trying to explain its meaning--Chaucer used the term--but classmates, she complained, knew what it resembled. "I was in tears, shaking," she told the faculty. "It's not up to the rest of the class to decide whether my feelings are valid."

Rideau's plea was a reality check. If the proper use of a Chaucerian term while teaching The Canterbury Tales could be construed as harassment of a student who did not know the word's spelling or meaning, then the code was teaching some interesting expectations indeed. Many "abolitionists," as they now were called, believe that Rideau's speech, widely reported, was the turning point, setting the stage both for greater attendance at the March meeting and for the final vote. John Sharpless, a history professor, asked, "What other words are to be purged from our language? Thespian?"

On February 2, 1999, the Wisconsin State Journal editorialized, "Thank you, Amelia Rideau, for clarifying precisely why the UW-Madison does not need an academic speech code....Speech codes have a chilling effect on academic freedom and they reinforce defensiveness among students who ought to be more open to learning."...

In leftist "critical legal theory," any expression that "demeans" the powerless is illegal discrimination, and nothing that creates "a hostile environment" is protected by the First Amendment or by academic freedom...

When a proponent of the code described his amendment as "just another ploy by the abolitionists," it took Onellion "three minutes to realize what abolitionist meant" in this context. Raising a point of personal privilege, he said that since his family descended from pro-Union Louisianans, he had no trouble being called an abolitionist. "I can play the game of cheap rhetorical tricks also," he observes.

I ask Onellion why he got involved in this controversy. He replies that scientists, unlike colleagues in the social sciences and humanities, are not "preoccupied" with social and political issues. Professors of physics are probably some of the most liberal voters in the country, he continues, but where "issues of free speech and censorship are involved," they part company with the politically correct: "It's a question of both principle and practicality. You can't get at the truth with-out pushing people and arguing wholly freely."

Scientists, he says, have a frame of reference for all this: "We remember the fate of science in Nazi Germany and of Lysenko in the Soviet Union." He draws a moral that professors would do well to learn: "If government has the power over discussion, the search for truth ends." Onellion reminds us why it is so important for the scientists at our universities to join the struggle for liberty."
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