Talking the talk
The University should be commended for eliminating speech codes that violate free expression
The University recently earned a "green light" rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. The University has come a long way since the controversy of Rosenberger v. University of Virginia (1995), during which the Supreme Court forced the University to fund religious groups. Now, the University has joined an elite group of 13 institutions that have earned the "green light" rating. Such a school, according to FIRE's website, does not have policies that seriously imperil free speech.
Freedom of expression is crucial to a university's educational environment. Without free speech, there is no flow of competing ideas through which a clearer perception of truth and understanding can be reached. Dean of Students Allen Groves quotes Thomas Jefferson in a public message on the Just Report It! website. "For here we are not afraid ... to tolerate any error so long as reason is free to combat it." Suppressing any form of expression denies students the opportunity to challenge that thought through reason.
Sustained community dialogue - not through tedious lists of regulations and definitions - is the only way to address discrimination. A FIRE pamphlet titled, "Correcting Common Mistakes in Campus Speech Policies," notes that "speech codes teach students the wrong lesson about how best to answer speech with which one disagrees, emphasizing censorship over further dialogue." Essentially, regulatory codes chill the expression of free speech and cast doubts on those who have dissenting opinions for fear of political incorrectness.
Furthermore, as an institution of learning, the University ought to encourage discourse from all points of view - not simply mainstream views. Groves agreed. "It is my opinion that no place should be more protective of - nor more aggressively celebrate free speech - than a college or university, and in particular this University." Speech codes often blur the line between what is and what is not illegal speech. Indeed, the line is often blurred in practice as well as in policy.
Such was the case in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez (2010), during which the Supreme Court ruled that an academic institution can refuse to recognize a student organization that violates the school's "all comers" policy. In this case, a Christian society at Hastings College of the Law required its members to sign a "statement of faith." It seems perfectly logical for an organization to require its members to follow its goals and beliefs, otherwise why would anyone join the organization? In its eagerness to promote tolerance and diversity, the Hastings administration forgot a simple fact of life: People are different and have different beliefs.
In addition to the direct problems of censorship, university speech codes present another problem. If the purpose of college is to prepare students for the rest of their lives, how does censorship prepare them to answer such speech after graduation? Simply teaching students that hate and discrimination is bad is not enough; instead, students must strive to understand why. As The Huffington Post's Adam Goldstein said, only students and prisoners have diminished First Amendment rights. It makes little sense to differentiate between students and the rest of the population. In fact, it would make sense that in an academic setting, even greater protections ought to be afforded to the freedom of expression to better educate through discourse. This is no longer a problem at the University, but other schools in Virginia are not so fortunate. At George Mason University, for example, "The sale, distribution, or solicitation of any ... newspaper by GMU and non-GMU organizations and individuals is subject to prior authorization." GMU effectively has total control over speech on campus.
The University's new commitment to the freedom of expression can be found in its new discrimination and harassment policy, which defines harassment as conduct "so severe or pervasive that it interferes with an individual's employment, academic performance or participation." This delineation addresses the fear that a lack of speech codes would lead to a proliferation of hate and bias. The strong response in the Day of Dialogue earlier this year shows that the University community has a commitment to fight hate in proactive ways that also respect First Amendment rights.. The community is still working hard to tackle violence and bias. Groves reminds us that, "People forget that just because something cannot be punished does not mean you cannot speak out against it." Fear and hatred will not overtake the University as long as the community continues to commit to reason and fruitful dialogue.
George Wang's columns appear Mondays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.