WELCH: Many American universities’ policies on diversity squelch free speech

By Benjamin Welch on February 21st, 2013

In its inception, higher education was founded on the notion that a population with varying thoughts, principles and belief systems could gather to present, discuss and integrate new ideas.

This can certainly be realized by the emphasis on accepting those of cultures and backgrounds different than our own and considering their opinions and thoughts to gain greater understanding of issues. This is the type of “diversity” universities should be advocating for.

But instead, the word has been twisted to mean that you cannot offend someone who is different than you.

Universities’ bastion of politically correct culture and ever-broadening definition of buzzwords is not only against the First Amendment, but stands contrary to the principle of academia by discouraging or punishing ideas that may offend others.

Speech is now being regulated at public universities under this rainbow-colored flag of “diversity,” which has come to mean a requirement to conform with our interpretation of acceptance.

A difference exists between acceptance and understanding. We are told that because someone’s viewpoint is different than our own for whatever reason, we must “accept” it rather than challenge it simply because we were not indoctrinated with it. In reality, we should be taught to challenge new ideas but still respect and understand why they’re being presented.

“What is happening on our campuses in the name of progress and social engineering is the enemy of liberty and it’s also the enemy of American progress,” Alan Kors, the founder of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) said, in a documentary by Penn Jillette and Teller.

Unfortunately, and somewhat astonishingly, most institutions of higher education in the nation suffer from bureaucracy that limits self-expression, freedom of speech and ideas in the name of “tolerance” and “diversity.”

“These absurdities upon absurdities are teaching people that not just common sense, but any semblance of freedom of expression is to be sacrificed on this alter of ‘do not offend,’” Kors says.

For example, Harvard University, obviously regarded as one of the top institutions in the world, has multiple policies that seem acceptable on its face, but could violate the First Amendment on further inspection.

“Behavior evidently intended to dishonor such characteristics as race, gender, ethnic group, religious belief, or sexual orientation is contrary to the pursuit of inquiry and education,” reads Harvard’s “Free Speech Guidelines.” Similarly, its “Handbook for Students” continues: “The ability to express one’s views regarding religion is a significant freedom of speech that the College upholds. In some instances, this type of expression becomes an avenue for persuasion to affiliate with a particular religion. Discussion in this vein is prohibited when the educational and work environment of an individual or the community is jeopardized.”

For example, if someone whose moral beliefs conflicted with the concept of gay marriage, that person is permitted by the First Amendment to counter-protest a LGBT rally. This action would violate a policy similar to Harvard’s, however, and perpetrators could face repercussions from the university, all for simply expressing their opinions.

While undoubtedly well-intentioned, the guidelines Harvard sets forth are both unconstitutional and subjective under the First Amendment, which protects the unabridged freedom of speech. Similar policies plague 62 percent of the 409 campuses examined by FIRE, and many others’ were questionable.

Thankfully, those who infringe upon these insensibilities are unlikely to face repercussions from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

In fact, UNL is one of only 15 public universities nationwide to receive a “green light” rating from FIRE’s “Spotlight on Speech Codes 2013.” This means that FIRE has been “unable to find a policy that seriously imperils speech” and that “FIRE is not currently aware of any serious threats to students’ free speech rights in the policies on that campus.”

This is good news for free-speech proponents, and drafters of school bylaws and other procedural material should be commended.

Last year, the University of California’s Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion has recommended to make the UC system “more inclusive and welcoming” to “all community members” and to “seek opportunities to prohibit hate speech on campus.”

“Hate speech” is another one of those vague terms used to quell dissent and in this case, gives UC officials more power in terms of controlling speech. I’m certainly not saying we should consciously attempt to offend other people or engage in hateful behavior for the thrill of it, but the First Amendment makes such instances a case of personal ethics and morals rather than law.

Simply put, you do not have the right to be protected from offensive content. Conversely, others have the right to offend you, as long as it doesn’t breach into incitement or other violent outbursts.

Regardless, when a truly diverse population exists, as many universities strive for, a person of a particular persuasion or belief system taking offense to an action or speech of another is an inevitable byproduct. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Knowledge and finding oneself is the cornerstone of the college experience, and a facet of that is learning to deal with adversity. The “real world” isn’t going to coddle you after graduation, so why expect it at an institution that embodies the free-flow exchange of ideas?

Universities are infringing upon rights in arenas the government on a larger scale can’t do (yet). I find this especially ironic since higher education should be about expanding the mind, not restricting ideas just because a section of society may subjectively find them inappropriate.

The American definition of a liberty includes a free marketplace of ideas, and colleges should be even freer, not less. We should be thankful UNL speech codes embrace this concept.

Benjamin Welch is a graduate student of journalism. Reach him at opinion@dailynebraskan.com

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