The most outrageous threat to my free speech rights on a college campus occurred my senior year when my girlfriend, upset at the body-count callousness of the discussion, walked out on me and my political science department buddies as we talked in the dorm dining room about the Vietnam War.
She eventually realized I was not that insensitive, just immature, and agreed to marry me. But our daughter is going off to college next year. From what I hear, she risks much more stringent sanctions if she expresses an impolitic thought.
I can't tell if the volume of potentially offensive verbiage on campus has increased in the last generation, or if universities have become more sensitive, but a lot of youthful expression is being quashed. A San Diego State University committee accused a student of abusive behavior, and told him to engage in more "responsible" conduct, after he objected to other students expressing delight, in Arabic, at the September 11 attacks. A student court at Penn State told the Young Americans for Freedom chapter that its reference to human rights as "God-given" constituted religious discrimination. A student who frequently criticized American University officials was arrested by campus police for videotaping a Tipper Gore speech.
So I was pleased to encounter an upstart group, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which is developing a free speech alert system that rates campuses on their tolerance for provocative words. It is based in Philadelphia, where Congress sat in 1791 when the states ratified FIRE's favorite 45-word sentence: the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The FIRE staffers are of both the left and the right. They campaign against speech codes and harassment rules that seem ready to stomp into the carpet any pimply freshman who causes distress by quoting Ayn Rand or Mao Zedong or Henry Miller or the Playboy philosophy. FIRE criticized Central Michigan University dormitory supervisors for telling student Don Pasco to remove what they said were offensive decorations after the September 11 attacks. Pasco was, naturally, a freshman who had not spent enough time on campus to realize that the flag, the eagle and the Miami Herald editorial on his door might be considered too political and controversial for public display. FIRE also supported civil rights and labor activists at West Virginia University who demonstrated against free speech having been limited to two outdoor spots on campus.
"There are now hundreds upon hundreds of colleges and universities that have restricted the First Amendment rights of their students and faculties," says Thor Halvorssen, FIRE's executive director, a 28-year-old Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. "At public universities, even when unchallenged, such codes are manifestly unconstitutional. At private universities, they are generally unadvertised."
Many of the codes have been written by university officials afraid that sexist, racist or aggressively political comments may make some students uncomfortable or start fights. Halvorssen says FIRE doesn't oppose private college speech codes if the rule makers are honest about them. "Freedom entails that individuals are free to associate voluntarily on terms that I myself would not choose, provided that they do not commit fraud," he explains. It is okay, he says, for Bob Jones University to ban anti-religious expression and Swarthmore to put consensus and community above individual rights (Swarthmore does not accept this interpretation), since they do it up front.
I asked Halvorssen to take an assortment of 14 colleges and universities, including several Washington-area campuses, and group them according to the alert system FIRE is developing. Red is "Danger: free speech suppressed"; yellow is "Warning: code could easily be interpreted to restrict free speech"; and green is "Free speech nominally protected by a code."
Halvorssen says the University of Maryland-College Park gets the red light because its speech and harassment guidelines are among the most constraining. What Maryland calls verbal behavior is regulated in a variety of surprising ways, he says. Among forbidden acts, for instance, are "holding or eating food provocatively." A University of Maryland spokesman says this language, from a university training document, is not official policy. Among local schools, George Mason University, Georgetown University and American University also got red lights.
Yale is a green-light school, Halvorssen says, because, despite some restrictive rules, it is still deeply influenced by a ringing endorsement of free expression written by the late historian C. Vann Woodward and others at the university in 1975. Whenever Yale officials crack down on verbal expression, FIRE points out how far they have strayed from the Woodward report. The result, says FIRE program officer Emmett Hogan, is that "they cave."
This kind of back-and-forth debate is healthy. Even threats to free speech can inspire useful corrective action. Since that day my future bride walked out on me and my friends, I have occasionally found myself editing my more inane comments before I utter them in her presence. Has my self-censorship reduced the quality of political discussion in the Mathews household? I don't think so. Judging from what I see on the Internet and cable TV these days, a little more thinking before typing or speaking would be a good thing.
Jay Mathews's e-mail address is email@example.com.