In 2007 a student working his way through college was found guilty of racial harassment for reading a book in public. Some of his co-workers had been offended by the book’s cover, which included pictures of men in white robes and peaked hoods along with the tome’s title, Notre Dame vs. the Klan. The student desperately explained that it was an ordinary history book, not a racist tract, and that it in fact celebrated the defeat of the Klan in a 1924 street fight. Nonetheless, the school, without even bothering to hold a hearing, found the student guilty of “openly reading [a] book related to a historically and racially abhorrent subject.”
The incident would seem far-fetched in a Philip Roth novel—or a Philip K. Dick novel, for that matter—but it actually happened to Keith John Sampson, a student and janitor at Indiana University–Purdue University Indiana-polis. Despite the intervention of both the American Civil Liberties Union and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE, where I am president), the case was hardly a blip on the media radar for at least half a year after it took place.
Compare that lack of attention with the response to the now-legendary 1993 “water buffalo incident” at the University of Pennsylvania, where a student was brought up on charges of racial harassment for yelling “Shut up, you water buffalo!” out his window. His outburst was directed at members of a black sorority who were holding a loud celebration outside his dorm. Penn’s effort to punish the student was covered by Time, Newsweek, The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The Financial Times, The New Republic, NPR, and NBC Nightly News, for starters. Commentators from Garry Trudeau to Rush Limbaugh agreed that Penn’s actions warranted mockery. Hating campus political correctness was hotter than grunge rock in the early 1990s. Both the Democratic president and the Republican Congress condemned campus speech codes. California passed a law to invalidate Stanford’s onerous speech rules, and comedians and public intellectuals alike decried collegiate censorship.
So what happened? Why does a case like the one involving Sampson’s Klan book, which is even crazier than the “water buffalo” story that was an international scandal 15 years ago, now barely produce a national shrug?
For many, the topic of political correctness feels oddly dated, like a debate over the best Nirvana album. There is a popular perception that P.C. was a battle fought and won in the 1990s. Campus P.C. was a hot new thing in the late 1980s and early ’90s, but by now the media have come to accept it as a more or less harmless, if unfortunate, byproduct of higher education.
But it is not harmless. With so many examples of censorship and administrative bullying, a generation of students is getting four years of dangerously wrongheaded lessons about both their own rights and the importance of respecting the rights of others. Diligently applying the lessons they are taught, students are increasingly turning on each other, and trying to silence fellow students who offend them. With schools bulldozing free speech in brazen defiance of legal precedent, and with authoritarian restrictions surrounding students from kindergarten through graduate school, how can we expect them to learn anything else?
Throwing the Book at Speech Codes
One reason people assume political correctness is dead is that campus speech codes—perhaps the most reviled symbol of P.C.—were soundly defeated in every single legal challenge brought against them from 1989 to 1995. At two universities in Michigan, at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Connecticut, at Stanford, speech codes crumbled in court. And of the 13 legal challenges launched since 2003 against codes that FIRE has deemed unconstitutional, each and every one has been successful. Given the vast differences across judges and jurisdictions, a 13-0 winning streak is, to say the least, an accomplishment.
Yet FIRE has determined that 71 percent of the 375 top colleges still have policies that severely restrict speech. And the problem isn’t limited to campuses that are constitutionally bound to respect free expression. The overwhelming majority of universities, public and private, promise incoming students and professors academic freedom and free speech. When such schools turn around and attempt to limit those students’ and instructors’ speech, they reveal themselves as hypocrites, susceptible not only to rightful public ridicule but also to lawsuits based on their violations of contractual promises.
FIRE defines a speech code as any campus regulation that punishes, forbids, heavily regulates, or restricts a substantial amount of protected speech, or what would be protected speech in society at large. Some of the codes currently in force include “free speech zones.” The policy at the University of Cincinnati, for example, limits protests to one area of campus, requires advance scheduling even within that area, and threatens criminal trespassing charges for anyone who violates the policy. Other codes promise a pain-free world, such as Texas Southern University’s ban on attempting to cause “emotional,” “mental,” or “verbal harm,” which includes “embarrassing, degrading or damaging information, assumptions, implications, [and] remarks” (emphasis added). The code at Texas A&M prohibits violating others’ “rights” to “respect for personal feelings” and “freedom from indignity of any type.”
Many universities also have wildly overbroad policies on computer use. Fordham, for example, prohibits using any email message to “insult” or “embarrass,” while Northeastern University tells students they may not send any message that “in the sole judgment of the University” is “annoying” or “offensive.”
Vague racial and sexual harassment codes remain the most common kinds of campus speech restrictions. Murray State University, for example, bans “displaying sexual and/or derogatory comments about men/women on coffee mugs, hats, clothing, etc.” (What is it like to be sexually harassed by a coffee mug?) The University of Idaho bans “communication” that is “insensitive.” New York University prohibits “insulting, teasing, mocking, degrading, or ridiculing another person or group,” as well as “inappropriate…comments, questions, [and] jokes.” Davidson College’s sexual harassment policy still prohibits the use of “patronizing remarks,” including referring to an adult as “girl,” “boy,” “hunk,” “doll,” “honey,” or “sweetie.” It also bars “comments or inquiries about dating.”
Before it was changed under pressure from FIRE, the residence life program at the University of Delaware, which applied to all 7,000 students in the dormitories, included a code that described “oppressive” speech as a crime on the same level of urgency as rape. Not content to limit speech, the program also informed resident assistants that “all whites are racists” and that it was the university’s job to heal them, required students to participate in floor events that publically shamed participants with “incorrect” political beliefs, and forced students to fill out questionnaires about what races and sexes they would date, with the goal of changing their idea of their own sexual identity. (These activities were described in the university’s materials as “treatments.”) These were just the lowlights among a dozen other illegal invasions of privacy, free speech, and conscience.
Until 2007 Western Michigan University’s harassment policy banned “sexism,” which it defined as “the perception and treatment of any person, not as an individual, but as a member of a category based on sex.” I am unfamiliar with any other attempt by a public institution to ban a perception, let alone perceiving that a person is a man or woman. Even public restrooms violate this rule, which may help explain why the university finally abandoned it.
Needless to say, ridiculous codes produce ridiculous prosecutions. In 2007, at Brandeis University, the administration found politics professor Donald Hindley guilty of racial harassment for using the word wetback in his Latin American politics class. Why had Hindley employed such an epithet? To explain its origins and to decry its use.