Is College Censorship Destroying Our Society's "Sophistication Machine"?

I firmly believe that if more people knew how common violations of free speech, due process, and other basic rights are on campus, the public will to end those abuses would be virtually unstoppable.
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I can't emphasize enough how excited I am to see the Huffington Post's new College section up and running. Seeing writers like student activist Noah Baron, the hilarious Riley Waggaman, and staunch defender of the student press Adam Goldstein all in the same place gives me hope that our society is starting to really understand that the issues that affect higher education today truly affect us all.

I've been defending student and faculty rights for nearly a decade now, and it never ceases to amaze me how oblivious most people are to the absurd abuses of student and faculty rights on campus. I've also been documenting some of these abuses for The Huffington Post since 2007, and in that time I have covered dozens of cases in which students were punished for things as innocent as reading a book, posting a Facebook collage, or even just writing e-mails to protest a decision to reduce the length of the semester by several days. You can read about these cases and many others in my recent feature for Reason magazine, and still more stunning examples in this video we put together to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education:

I firmly believe that if more people knew how common these violations of free speech, due process, and other basic rights are on campus, the public will to end those abuses would be virtually unstoppable.

This brings me to my big project for 2010: I'm working on a book highlighting the literally hundreds of cases I've worked on involving crazy abuses of student and faculty rights. I intend to demonstrate how campus censorship, far from being a niche concern applicable only to those on campus, is a threat to the functioning of our democracy as a whole.

Originally, as I started this book project, my focus was on what I call "unlearning liberty": that is, the frightening tendency of students to learn from omnipresent speech codes (71% of public campuses have laughably unconstitutional codes) and the bad examples of administrators that censorship is not only an acceptable option, but actually something that good people do. The most chilling examples of students "unlearning liberty" are the relatively routine instances of students destroying (and, indeed, in some cases burning) student newspapers that print articles with which they disagree. If students learn such terrible lessons about free and open discourse in higher education, it genuinely poses a long-term threat to the health of our pluralistic democracy.

Lately, however, I am increasingly interested in how 20 years of campus speech codes and the common punishment of dissenting opinions is affecting our society right now.

My premise is that the state of American discourse has truly reached a new low over the past decade. While I certainly remember some of the uglier political moments of the 1990s, the unreflective, hyper-partisan mentality currently gripping our country makes the '90s look downright harmonious. Unfortunately, it only seems to be getting worse by the day, and I believe higher education is part of the reason why.

I am not arguing that this degradation in national discourse is exclusively the fault of higher education. One could write a dozen books on the many different factors--from the rise of the new media, to massive demographic shifts, to out-of-control gerrymandering--that may be contributing to this polarization. But I do believe that, while higher education could help us reverse or push back this process of declining national dialogue, instead it is failing in its responsibility to foster serious, thoughtful debate and discussion.

In my opinion, higher education is supposed to work as a sort of "sophistication machine" for our society. That is, it is supposed to help us produce a citizenry with a deep, nuanced, complex, and multifaceted understanding of the issues confronting our nation and world. Many critics of higher education point to ideological imbalance within the faculty, grade inflation and diminishing academic rigor, or the increased corporatization of the university as factors that prevent it from fulfilling this crucial function. These are all problems worth investigating. But I believe the most important factor interfering with the success and credibility of higher education is the continuing maintenance of campus speech codes and other policies and practices designed to discourage and even punish free speech and meaningful dissent.

A recent dramatic example of the silencing of basic dissent happened at Bucknell, where students were not allowed to protest the stimulus plan by handing out obviously fake "Obama stimulus dollars." Bucknell has steadfastly refused to back down from this absurd decision. Bucknell's effort to censor discussion of the stimulus bill is stunning not only because the stimulus has been criticized by practically everybody, but most importantly because it demonstrates how difficult it is to have a meaningful discussion when students can actually get in trouble for taking the "wrong side" of an issue. As long as speech codes mandate that campus judiciaries investigate clearly protected speech, and "offensive" arguments can be and are censored on campus, the difficult process of learning through debate and discussion cannot properly take place. Without robust debate and discussion, we can only expect the national level of discourse to--in the best case--stay the same, or worse, become even more polarized. Meanwhile, when college administrators short-circuit the academic marketplace of ideas, they utterly undermine any hope the academy might have of being taken seriously as a national resource on many important social and political issues. Therefore, I argue that until campus censorship and speech codes are a thing of the past, the sophistication machine is and will remain broken.

This is sure to be a controversial premise. First of all, those of us (like me) who consider ourselves to be good liberals can go through college being blissfully unaware of how common punishments for offending the wrong administrator or protesting on behalf of the wrong cause can be these days. We also often fail to understand that even a relatively small number of punishments of protected speech will profoundly chill debate and discussion--especially when coupled with policies that flatly tell students that various forms of "offensive" speech, broadly defined, are forbidden. And then, of course, there is the simple fact that our country has become so politically polarized that any serious criticism of higher education is sometimes foolishly and somewhat strangely dismissed as a "conservative" concern. I believe this too-little-examined tactic of the culture wars is just another example of the degradation of American discourse and, interestingly enough, is no small part the result of campuses that are increasingly intolerant of dissent. As long as serious critics of higher education can be dismissed as being in some way on the "fringe," no meaningful reform can take place.

So, that is what I'm working on this year in addition to many of my usual duties as president of FIRE. I welcome your thoughts, criticisms, examples, counterarguments, jokes, anecdotes, or whatever else you'd like to contribute to this process. (E-mail and Twitter are the best ways to reach me.) Meanwhile, today I will be speaking at my alma mater, Stanford, a school that in the 1990s had to be told by a court order to drop its highly restrictive speech code, and soon thereafter at UC Berkeley, once known primarily as the birthplace of the free speech movement, but these days a little bit more famous for mass budget protests. Wish me luck!

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