College Campuses Are Centers Of Censorship And Groupthink
Greg Lukianoff and Robert Shibley have a terrific piece from this April up at theFIRE.org, "6 Ways to Defeat the Campus Censors." Here's the preamble:
It's no longer a matter of much debate that America's college campuses are not the beacons of free and open discussion they were intended to be. In its 14 years of existence, our organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), has documented hundreds of cases of gross abuses of students' and faculty members' fundamental rights. More than sixty percent of America's largest and most prestigious colleges have speech codes that are either unconstitutional (at public universities) or directly contradict promises of free speech (at private universities).
The two authors of this piece come from different political and personal perspectives. One is a liberal and an atheist (Lukianoff), the other a conservative evangelical Christian (Shibley). Our combined decades of work as president and senior vice president of FIRE have convinced us that the groupthink and the pressure to conform, be silent, or talk solely to those with whom you already agree that is fostered by the culture and rules of the modern campus is destructive to students, our educational system, and our society as a whole.
So what can people who recognize the importance of free speech on campus do about it? There are a number of possible measures that might be taken. FIRE is already doing some of them; others would require new large-scale and ambitious initiatives. Some are cultural. Some are political or legal. None are the silver bullet that a lot of us might like, and some have tradeoffs that might make them less desirable. Let's take a look at a few of them.
Here's their recommendation on sexual harassment:
2. Legally End the Slippery Debate about What "Harassment" Really Means.
Since the 1980s, the most common form of campus speech codes has been wildly overbroad or vague harassment codes. Poorly written or purposely broad harassment policies can chill or silence huge swaths of protected speech. For example, Auburn University at Montgomery bans "jokes" about protected characteristics, as well as "making judgments," thus managing to ban with a single policy both Chris Rock and Sandra Day O'Connor.
The Supreme Court has actually provided the solution to this problem, if only schools would listen. It comes from Justice O'Connor's majority decision in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education (1999), in which the Supreme Court set out a standard for peer-on-peer harassment in the educational setting that protects free speech while preventing real discriminatory harassment. Under theDavis standard, behavior becomes punishable when it is (1) unwelcome, (2) discriminatory, (3) on the basis of gender or another protected class, such as race, (4) directed at an individual, and (5) "so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and detracts from the victims' educational experience, that the victim-students are effectively denied equal access to an institution's resources and opportunities."
The Davis standard is a definition that is serious and that correctly confines harassment to seriously discriminatory patterns of behavior. Such a specific definition is nothing like the countless campus codes that prohibit "inappropriate," "demeaning," or merely "offensive" speech. Adopting Davis would send a strong message that "harassment" can no longer be treated as code for a student's or administrator's supposed "right not to be offended."
Colleges could adopt the Davis standard on their own, or the standard could be written into federal or state legislation. Since all schools receiving federal funding are already bound by Titles VI and IX to have rules against racial and sexual harassment, adding this standard to law would not result in further federal entanglement. Indeed, it would add much needed clarity to federal requirements that confuse nearly everyone involved. It is crucial, however, that the law state that the definition of harassment should be understood as "no more and no less than" the Davis standard, and that the Davis standard definition be the only acceptable definition of harassment in the educational context. Without such language, campuses would simply go back to their current practice of having an arguably constitutional definition of harassment in one part of their code coupled with comically unconstitutional definitions of harassment elsewhere.
Note the essential bit in the Davis standard of sexual harassment. Nothing about a man talking about sex once during a single lunch with a woman -- which, for example, out of the university environment, was said to be "sexual harassment" by Bora Zivkovic, despite meeting none of the standards for that under the law. It's serious stuff that needs to be the standard for punishment. Conduct that is...
(5) "so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and detracts from the victims' educational experience, that the victim-students are effectively denied equal access to an institution's resources and opportunities."
This, from the end of the piece, about "promoting a cultural norm for debate" is so, so vital:
"Safety" is a much abused term on campus, often invoked lightly to refer to a generalized right for students to feel emotionally unchallenged. That kind of "safety" is a more appropriate goal for K-8 education, and even there it has likely already been taken too far--eighth graders understand a whole lot about disagreement. But there is a kind of safety for which advocates of reform in higher education must press: campuses need to be places where it is safe to disagree at a fundamental level, safe to question and even satirize the university's sacred cows, safe to question the conventional wisdom, and safe even to be wrong, to provoke, and (gasp) to joke. While there has been much talk in the last decade that higher education is moving on to some next level, little progress can be made within the existing models as long as students and faculty can and do still get in trouble for merely stating opinions that administrators dislike.