Sunday, November 18, 2012

Speech Codes on Campus

I've been very passionate about protecting free speech for quite a while.  Probably as far back as late August, I've wanted to take an active part in reversing some policies that I see as a threat to a full and complete education.  I was kind of on the fence about it though – school was busy, I was at that time trying to run a club, and generally had other things on my mind, so taking the time to make something happen stayed with me, but wasn't really a priority.

That changed when one of the editors for the school paper that I work for, the Watchdog, approached me and told me that they had decided not to run a story I had written about the violent global reaction to the “Innocence of Muslims” film.  I wasn't terribly surprised, given the nature of the topic, but it still angered me.  I wasn't angry at the editor though. I was angry at the situation in general, because even though this was probably the most important news story of the whole month of October, the reactions the editor was worried about had a precedent in recent history that was compelling enough to keep that story from being heard on campus.

In 2007, for example, the editor-in-chief of another school newspaper, the Daily Illini, was suspended from school and fired from their job for reprinting four of the twelve Danish cartoons that had been circulating around the world and causing an enormous political uproar.  This would be, by any account, a very important news story for any student with even a vague interest in foreign politics and global affairs, but even talking about it quickly became controversial because people were getting offended.

The problem with the whole situation is essentially this: as a culture, we've been programmed to think that we more or less have a right not to be offended, and that if someone is offended, it’s the fault of the person who is doing the offending and not the fault of the person claiming offence.  What is offence, really?  I don’t really need to explain why this mindset is bad if you've read Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” but in case you haven’t it’s because different people are offended by different things, and the sensitivity level varies as much as the number of triggers.  If you try to avoid anything and everything that might offend people, you will inevitably end up with nothing – which costs people the very education they've paid money for.   Regardless, you’ll fail anyhow, because this coddling treatment offends me!

The problem we’re facing here at BC is the institutionalization of this way of thinking through what are called “bias incidents.”

What is a bias incident? As they’re described in the “Don’t Let the Haters Win” pamphlets, which you can pick up in the President’s office, a bias incident is “conduct, speech, or behavior motivated by prejudice or bias toward another person that does not rise to the level of crime.”

For obvious reasons, punishing the unfair treatment of students isn't intrinsically a bad idea.  It’s actually a very good idea, but the way bias incidents are defined unfortunately has a fundamental flaw, which is that they’re subjective.  What do I mean by that?  I mean that whether an action is deemed to be punishable as a bias incident or not is determined by the perception of the victim.  The pamphlet actually lists three factors on what is implied to be a larger list of possible aspects used in determining whether an action is a bias incident, but of the remaining two factors given, one is un-provable (evidence of motive), and the other is plausibly deniable (evidence of connections to known hate groups).  Perhaps it could be argued that connections to hate groups might provide a good foundation for an indictment of discriminatory conduct. In any case, if you look at other instances of censorship on the grounds of bias in other schools, you’ll notice that motives and ties to hate groups almost never play any kind of role in making that determination.  It almost always comes down just to the subjective experience of offended.

Let me explain the connection between bias incidents aimed at student action towards other students, and the censorship of books, videos, speech, etc.  Besides the obvious fact that a book, video, or speech could qualify as a bias incident, maintaining these kinds of rules further cultivates the mentality of entitlement to an unperturbed, unchallenged mind.  The society we live in today is in many ways more sensitive than is healthy for the open dialogue necessary for a functioning democracy to happen.  You can see this in the increased polarization of political parties and religious ideologies.  People have become close-minded because being open-minded means sometimes having to admit that you’re wrong, and that hurts.  We’d rather not do that.

On a related side-note, the culture of entitlement also breeds fear.  Sometimes fear of retribution, but more importantly fear of breaking the increasingly narrow bubble of social norms.  By seeing these kinds of rules, and BC’s dribbling affirmation of inclusiveness plastered in every room and on every club charter and on every syllabus, students become attuned to the language of non-confrontation, and become uncomfortable, even scared, of speaking their mind because it might lead to conflict.  I can’t tell you how many potentially wonderful debates I've almost gotten into with students, only to have them back off because they “don’t want to start a fight.”  A debate isn't a fight – it’s the pinnacle of intellectual and academic stimulation!  It’s the pinnacle of learning, and it's being lost.

To return to the previous point, bias incidents affect the entire student culture, notably student attitudes towards learning materials, even if the language is aimed at interpersonal interaction.  This brings us to one of the biggest specters that looms up whenever subjective standards become objective rules: censorship, and it’s more evil twin, self-censorship.

Do you know what the most banned book in the United States is?  It’s probably not what you think it is… I would have guessed something like “Mein Kampf” or “The Turner Diaries,” but it’s actually J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series.  The most painful book to see banned, and another of the most commonly censored, is Mark Twain’s classic “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”  Under these subjective rules designed to protect students from having their feelings hurt, students are being deprived of what is arguably the most eloquent, beautiful, and powerful counter to racism ever written on the grounds of itself being racist.

Another example: just last week, the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled, “How Free Speech Died on Campus,” which described how Yale students aren't allowed to wear T-shirts with F. Scott Fitzgerald quotes on them, and certain passages from the Quran aren't allowed to be quoted at Tufts.  In one particularly Orwellian instance from a mere two weeks ago, the Fordham University administration condemned a political club for inviting a controversial speaker, and ambiguously called the invitation a “test” of the school’s speech codes.  After the club caved in and disinvited the speaker, the administration praised itself for its valiant defense of free speech.

Taking a step back from the specifics, you might be asking “How did this whole phenomenon come about?”  The judicial branch is more or less solely responsible in this case.  There are a number of court cases have slowly constricted freedoms of speech over the last century; certainly not just for students, but for students more than anyone else.   In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled in Hosty v. Carter that for University environments “Hazelwood provides our starting point,” which is a reference to the 1973 Supreme Court case over free speech in high schools, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier.  In that 1973 case, the court ruled that the school administration had the right to limit student speech that was “school-sponsored,” and gave among its examples of things that could be censored, material that was “poorly written,” material that “would associate the school with anything other than neutrality on matters of political controversy,” and most insultingly, material that was “unsuitable for immature audiences.”  But even these cases are built on a frame of reference that goes all the way back to 1919, a case that was so influential that you’ll probably recognize the ruling even if you don’t know the case, since it has a habit of coming up quite a lot.

Case in point: at the student open forum for the presidential candidate Dr. David Rule, (who I’m very happy to say will almost certainly be our new president this coming winter quarter), I asked him where he saw the line between first amendment protections and protections for students against bullying, since that was something of a hot topic at those question and answer sessions.  His response was that in his view, first amendment protections aren't absolute, and he gave by way of explanation, the example of how someone can’t shout “fire” in a crowded theater because it would endanger other people’s safety.

What he was referencing with that comment was that 1919 Supreme Court case, Schenck v. United States, in which the famous Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes declared that “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.” By his reasoning, such a use of words would pose a “clear and present danger” that the government has not only the constitutional ability, but the duty to limit.

While the ruling sounds reasonable enough at first glance and standing alone, the background might portray the court’s decision in a slightly different light. Charles Schenck, the secretary of the Socialist Party of America at the time, had been distributing pamphlets to young men of military age urging them to oppose the draft and the American involvement in the First World War.  He was arrested and convicted of violating the Espionage Act of 1917, which, among other things, made “any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States ... or the flag of the United States, or the uniform of the Army or Navy,” a criminal act.  It was arguably one of the worst pieces of American legislation ever passed into law, in terms of undermining the values of free society and diversity of opinion and expression protected and celebrated by our great Constitution.  Schenck appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that his 1st amendment rights protected his opposition to the American involvement in the war, which the Supreme Court under Holmes shot down, labeling his speech as allegorically equivalent to shouting fire in a crowded theater.

What’s painfully ironic in hindsight is that there really was a fire… there was an enormous fire on the Western Front, where the United states eventually lost over 115,000 soldiers, and nearly doubled that in wounded.  In casualties, it was the greatest loss of life the Western world had experienced in history, not to be outdone until World War II a few decades later.  Schenck was in this case the real firefighter, and Oliver Wendell Holmes threw him in prison for attempting to alert people to the danger.

So who is to decide what speech is harmful and what speech is good?  Clearly the US Supreme Court shouldn't be the one deciding.  So maybe we should allow Community College administrators to make that decision instead?  Deciding for us adults what we ought to be allowed to write and say?  And by extension to read and hear?

Well, as a paying student and customer of the college, this is my opinion – my judgment if you will, that I think is equally if not more important than the Hazelwood ruling: the bias incident code in its current form is “poorly written.”  It “associates me with a position of neutrality on matters of political controversy,” which is wrong because I actually care about these controversies and have an opinion about them that I have a right to say.  Most importantly, I think that subjective restrictions are “unsuitable for mature audiences.” Particularly educated mature audiences, and especially if they’re paying for the right to read, write, listen, and speak.

As a mere Community College, it isn't really realistic to hope to overturn fatuous Supreme Court rulings, but if those higher up insist on taking full advantage of the censorial power allowed to them by the courts, I would hope we can redirect them to the 2001 case of Kincaid v. Gibson, in which it was ruled that the learning environment of the University is the “quintessential marketplace of ideas, which merits full, or indeed heightened first amendment protections.”  We cannot attain a complete education without coming out from under the sheltering rock and exposing ourselves to different ideas and opinions, even if they might offend the more thin-skinned among us.

If my editor is afraid to publish my writings for fear of retribution, something is wrong.  If my communications teacher can’t show us historical examples of propaganda due to rules best described as puerile, something is wrong.  If our free speech is given lip-service where it matters least – in a so-called free speech zone, (as if one needed a zone in which to maintain their protection under the 1st amendment) – but taken away in the only place where it truly matters, the classroom, something is dreadfully wrong.  And yet, all of these things are true, and we as students are suffering for it, often without even knowing what we've lost and what we’re continuing to lose.

These things aren’t the fault of Bellevue College’s administration or faculty, as far as I can tell. Our vice-president of Diversity is as vocal in her support of free speech as she is in defending students from discrimination, even going so far as to defend a racist message on campus (so long as it’s kept within the “free-speech zone”), and speech code policies have been standard practice across the landscape of our nation’s educational institutions for a while now.  This, however, doesn't make these policies acceptable.  We should get rid of bias incidents.  We should get rid of them completely, or if nothing else, reword them and all of the other rules like them with concrete, objective language that offers protection for students against harassment, assault, and other manifestly and objectively harmful acts.  Removing subjective standards of discrimination won’t somehow increase the amount of bias and hatred on campus, but it will increase student and faculty freedoms to more efficiently and effectively pursue what they came to college to do: get an education.

Remember, bias incidents don’t make colleges safer; they only sterilize the classroom of the very diversity of thought and perspective they were designed to protect.  When you really boil it down, all education is is exposure to new ideas and perspectives, which is precisely what these rules are taking away.  Don’t let the censors win: lets get rid of bias incidents.


  1. As I've said before, the most powerful propaganda will always be at the Third Grade level. "Don't Let The Haters Win" is something even a child can understand and get behind. It takes a higher level of thinking to really examine the complexities of any given agenda being pushed on a people. As Americans, we are told not to question anything. If you come out and speak for what is right and call out leaders for their bad decisions, you are treated as a "weird person". How dare you talk about something other than LeBron James' new shoes or whoever the Kardashians are sleeping with these days. It's a cultural problem, and one that is not easily solved.

  2. It is a cultural problem, and it's supported by the traditional propaganda strategy of simplify & repeat, as you said, but even cultural problems can be solved if the message of the "other side" can be seen and heard by enough people. This is partially what I'm trying to do in writing these sorts of pieces. While I understand that your slightly exaggerated examples of people obsessing over shoes and celebrities might appear to be true, the fact that we're sitting here typing about the issue seriously, ostensibly caring much more about these issues than about Lindsey Lohan's most recent escapades seems to demonstrate (if only by anecdote) that people can and do care about and talk about these issues when they're aware that they ARE, in fact, issues worth caring about.

    1. Though I think in general you are sadly right on a somewhat different point - we've become a nation of cowards, paralyzed by fear of conflict that might be stirred up in talking about important issues.