Some colleges and universities have become known as p.c. campuses. That is, many students and faculty are obsessed with the need to be politically correct -- and with the corollary need to try to suppress ideas they say are offensively incorrect.
Students at various campuses have told me that they have learned to keep their heretical ideas -- on such subjects, for example, as affirmative action and abortion -- to themselves rather than be treated as pariahs.
A textbook illustration of the p.c. phenomenon is taking place at New York University Law School, one of the highest-rated in the country but subject, in recent years, to virulent student orthodoxies.
At NYU, as at most law schools, there are moot court competitions through which students learn to write briefs and then defend them in oral argument before invited judges -- including real judges. This fall, the hypothetical case concerned a soon-to-be-divorced husband's attempt to get custody of his 5-year-old daughter. The mother, he claimed -- and she did not deny it -- was involved in a lesbian relationship with a woman who was now living in the mother's home.
The Family Court gave sole custody to the mother, saying there was no evidence of any negative impact on the 5-year-old as a result of her mother's lesbian relationship. The father was given leave to appeal, and at this point, the NYU moot court competition begins. Certain students are assigned to become appellate advocates for the father, and other students take up the mother's case.
Soon a revolt broke out. A number of students -- assigned to the father's argument that itis not in the best interest of the child to grow up among lesbians -- said the argument was offensive to them. "Fueled by hatred," wrote one student, the argument so consists of "biased beliefs and attitudes" that "it is impossible to write a meaningful brief on this side of the issue." Moreover, she went on, it is so weak a position that she and others on that side will be at a disadvantage in the moot court competition.
Worse yet, "writing arguments on the side of the petitioner is hurtful to a group of people and thus hurtful to all of us."
The student-run moot court board surrendered. The repellent child custody case was removed from the competition as not being "appropriate." Some members of the board, it was explained, thought that the issue "was not an open question in a law school community that has a policy of condemning anti-gay biases, both in the law and society."
For these future lawyers and law professors, making any student argue for the father "was an affront to our law school's values, and thus there was no need for further debate."
At this point, a number of law students loyal to the notion that a law school is a place of free inquiry protested strongly. It was noted sardonically that the case substituted for the child custody problem could not be more uncontroversial. It has to do with homeowner tort liability. Or, as one dissenting student said, "We were so unwilling to make a politically incorrect argument -- or maybe afraid of being perceived as agreeing with it -- that we fled to the safety of arguing whether or not homeowners have to trim their trees."
Some professors were also heard from, none as impressively as Anthony Amsterdam, who has spent many years on exceedingly difficult death-penalty cases, among other arguments for decidedly unpopular clients.
In a letter to the moot court board, Amsterdam wrote: "The declaration that any legal issue is 'not an open question in a law school' is a declaration of war upon everything that a law school is. Most fundamentally, a law school is a place of intellectual inquiry, where the acceptability of ideas can only be determined by examining them... .
"How can we ever rid our society of anti-gay biases unless we formulate the strongest arguments we can possibly make against those biases? And how can we do that if we don't also formulate the strongest arguments that could be made to support the biases?"
The moot court board has now revolved again. The child custody case is back in play, but students can have the option of briefing and arguing the tree-trimming case. The board said it did not want to penalize the students who had already spent time on the second case.
But it is a bad compromise. The precedent has been set that if a case in the moot court competition is not politically correct, a sensitive student can take another instead. And if that one is "hurtful" too, then maybe the student can make up his or her own case -- in which the politically deserving will surely win.