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Free Speech and Political Correctness in Academia
What is free speech? What comes to mind when we say those two little words? To many, the right of free speech is the paramount right afforded to us in the Bill of Rights. Without free speech many of the basic tenants of society that we hold dear would not be possible. But today in colleges and universities across the country, free speech is under attack beneath the banner of political correctness. In an effort to be politically correct, college campuses, long thought to be a place for the free discussion of thoughts and ideas, are becoming a place where free thought has been replaced with a strict adherence to doctrine and ideology.
Political correctness, a term used to describe language, ideas, policies, or behavior seen as seeking to minimize offense to racial, cultural or other identity groups, is the dogma that is used by many to restrict the discussion of controversial topics. Political correctness also allows for discrimination and bias under the guise of diversity.
Diversity in its own right is a good thing. When all opinions and viewpoints are allowed and respected, the educational experience is enhanced and encouraged to flourish. But diversity has been used to keep qualified students from being admitted to some schools based primarily on real or perceived quotas. In 1991, Dinesh D'Souza wrote of speaking to Robert Bailey, the director of admissions at the University of California at Berkeley, about standards for admission. In the discussion, a hypothetical student with a B+ to A- average and a 1200 SAT, was discussed. When asked if the student were Hispanic, what would the probability of admission be? Mr. Bailey stated “The probability would be 100%”. But when the race of the student was changed to Asian or Caucasian the probability was “approximately 5%”. (D'Souza 3) What is shown here is a preference given to students based not on their academic achievement but on certain racial components. Due to a lower representation of Hispanics at UC Berkeley, preference was given to establish a diversity balance. Students who would otherwise not be admitted are admitted based on someone's idea of diversity. This diversity bias has become not the exception, but the rule throughout the country. In an effort to represent a wide cross-section of society and prevent discrimination, some students are being discriminated against.
The PC thought police have invaded many other parts of university administrations. Speech codes, enacted to prevent harassment and threatening behavior, have been used by many to retaliate against perceived harassment. Students and faculty must be on guard at all times, because the smallest slip of the tongue or misunderstanding can lead to the destruction of their academic career. The “water buffalo” incident at the University of Pennsylvania in 1993 is one such example. In the incident freshman student, Eden Jacobowitz confronted a group of rowdy students who were making noise outside his dorm window. He had shouted, "Shut up, you water buffalo," out his window to a crowd of mostly black Delta Sigma Theta sorority sisters creating a ruckus outside his dorm. Others had shouted at the crowd, including several who shouted racial epithets, but Jacobowitz was the only one charged. Student Eden Jacobowitz was charged with violating Penn's racial harassment policy. Jacobowitz explained his choice of "water buffalo" was from Hebrew slang, "Behema," used by Jews to refer to a loud, rowdy person. He procured several expert witnesses who attested that "water buffalo" was not a racial epithet against African Americans. He was pilloried for using the term and was nearly forced to leave school (Leiter).
The efforts to restrict free speech have also made their way to the faculty. Some professors and administrators have been removed or forced out because of an unpopular statement. At the University of Colorado, ethnic studies professor Ward Churchill was fired in part for making some extreme comments about the victims of the 9/11 attacks (Morson). Whether or not you agree with his statements, they should have been allowed if alternate viewpoints were also allowed. Another example is the case of Lawrence Summers who was forced to resign as president of Harvard University in 2005 after he made a comment at the Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce about possible reasons why there were more men than women in high end science and engineering positions (Finder and Zernike). These comments, though impolitic, have been argued as scientifically justifiable and thus not offensive in the debate.
Retaliation can also go the other way. There have been many reports of professors giving low grades to students who did not agree with their viewpoint. Some of the reports may be misunderstandings on the part of either the student or the professor, but they cannot all be dismissed lightly. Dori Kozloff, a former graduate student at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, was forced out of the graduate program over a disagreement about the topic of her graduate thesis (Kozloff). At Washington State University Ed Swan, a graduate student in the College of Education, was forced to attend diversity training and was nearly forced out of the program due to the conservative viewpoints that he held (Geranios).
Student organizations are another area in universities where the PC genie has appeared. Student organizations fill a vital role in student life. They help students find resources and also deal with problems the student might be having. But there seems to be a focus on organizations focused on certain races, colors, creeds, and other specific traits. Although the Black Student Union and Latin American Student Organization allow people of all races to join, as a Caucasian student I did not feel welcome at a recent gathering I attended. Why is it that the Black Student Union and Latin American Student Organization are seen as acceptable but if there were a White/Caucasian Student Union that would be seen as racist?
The PC patrol also seems to have a problem with groups that organize for some particular issues. When a student group is set up for a certain topic, why should the school force them to change? If these groups are open to people of all types to join, shouldn't they be allowed to choose the people who direct their guiding principles? At Gonzaga law school, a Christian pro-life group was defunded and forced off campus because it denied non-Christians leadership roles (Gonzaga). This case seems strange for Gonzaga as it is a Jesuit Catholic private university. Should a Christian pro-life group be forced to appoint an atheist to serve in a management position? Should a Muslim group be forced to appoint fundamentalist Christians to serve as officers? These questions may seem strange, but groups are being forced out because they wouldn't submit to the PC demands.
In the world of academia, political correctness has become a stifling influence on free speech. Some students and faculty are afraid to speak their minds due to the climate of intimidation. They fear retaliation, the loss of position, grades, and worse. If college campuses are to be the wellspring of free thought and expression that they have been in the past, people should be free to express their thoughts. Until we truly have the right to speak our minds without fear, then we will not be able to grow to our potential as individuals and as a people.
D'Souza, Dinesh. Illiberal Education: Political Correctness and the College Experience. New York: Free Press, 1991. 3.
Finder, Alan and Kate Zernike. Embattled President of Harvard to Step Down at End of Semester. 2006-02-21. < http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/21/education/21cnd-harvard.html?ex=1298178000&en=e66a06df2ce16bb4&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss>
Geranios, Nicholas K. Conservative student claims bias at WSU. Seattle Times. 2005-11-14. <http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2002622570_teacherflap14.html>
Gonzaga University: Refusal to Recognize Christian Pro-Life Club. Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) 2003. 2003-11-24. <http://www.thefire.org/index.php/case/78.html>
Kozloff, Dori v. University of California Board of Regents et al. 2:2004cv10305. California Central District Court. 2004-12-17.
Leiter, Robert. Jewish alumnus sues Univ. of Pa. over `water buffalo' incident. Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. 1996-04-19. < http://www.jewishsf.com/content/2-0-/module/displaystory/story_id/3443/edition_id/61/format/html/displaystory.html >
Morson, Berny. CU regents fire Ward Churchill. Rocky Mountain News. 2007-07-25. <http://www.rockymountainnews.com/drmn/local/article/0,1299,DRMN_15_5642650,00.html>