The past year has seen an explosion of political documentaries. But the single most interesting one has yet to find a commercial distributor. Evan Coyne Maloney’s “Brainwashing 101” employs the techniques which made such films as Supersize Me effective: cheeky commentary, smartly ironic editing, a self-deprecating onscreen persona and cleverly staged confrontations with soulless bureaucrats. In this case, the bureaucrats are leftist administrators at American colleges.
Maloney’s film exposes the assaults on free speech still occurring at major universities across the U.S. As editor of Choosing the Right College, I get reports from over 130 top schools, and I wish I could report that Maloney is mistaken—that the phenomenon of political correctness was a passing ugliness of the 1990s, now faded like Kurt Cobain’s flannel shirts.
But I can’t. Some of the worst excesses at elite schools have been publicized and corrected—but at middle-tier private and large public universities, students are suffering P.C.’s “second-wave.” Now they face administrative radicals, “educrats” who have enshrined multiculturalist dogma in university regulations. Under the rubric of avoiding “harassment” and promoting “diversity,” they have chilled free discussion, threatened students, and cowed dissenting faculty. In Maloney’s witty, canny, and journalistically solid short film, he portrays abuses he found at three mainstream, unremarkable schools: U. of Tennessee, Bucknell University, California Polytechnic State.
At Bucknell, Maloney’s alma mater, he interviews campus conservatives who report that administrators intimidated them for helping an alternative paper challenge the university’s “speech code.” One student says that the university has imposed a “gag order” on criticism of the speech code itself. Maloney records a Marxist economics professor explaining that any speech which “offends” someone amounts to harassment, and may result in enforced “sensitivity training.”
Moving south to Tennessee State, Maloney touches on the fate of a band of five white fraternity brothers from Jackson, Miss., who in 2002 dressed in blackface as “the Jackson Five” for an “air guitar” competition marking Halloween. The university quickly suspended the entire fraternity from campus. So you might think that U. of Tennessee is hypervigilant about preventing racial division.
But you’d be wrong. Maloney recounts what happened to conservative columnist Sukhmani Singh Khalsa. An American Sikh, Khalsa suffered racist death threats in November 2003 for writing a column in the Tennessee State campus paper. He had questioned the leftist composition of the student committee which brought in campus speakers. In a flurry of outraged emails among that group’s members, one said of Khalsa “if you see one of those ragheads, shoot him right in the f----ing face,” while another called for Khalsa to suffer “torture that would put the spanish inquisition (sic) to shame.” The committee’s faculty advisor took no action. Neither did university administration, except to call the police on one occasion—to stop students in support of Khalsa from gathering petition signatures.
Out west, “Brainwashing 101” shows how, in 2002, California Polytechnic State University prosecuted College Republican Steve Hinkle for posting a flier on a bulletin board. When Hinkle tried to tack up an ad for a talk by black conservative Mason Weaver about his book, It’s OK to Leave the Plantation, at the school’s Multicultural Center, he was confronted by several angry students. They said the flier “offended” them and couldn’t be posted, according to university policy. Hinkle left to find a copy of the policy—and when he returned, he faced the campus police. They described Hinkle in their report as “a suspicious white male passing out literature of an offensive racial nature.” Hinkle was subjected to lengthy hearings, interrogations by administrators without benefit of an attorney, and demands that he issue a public apology or risk expulsion. It took a lawsuit in federal court filed by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a non-partisan free speech group staffed by veteran ACLU attorneys, to force Cal Poly to drop all charges.
It’d be nice to think that these were isolated incidents. But add them and they make a trend. In compiling our college guide, we’ve come across recent abuses of free speech at the University of California, San Diego, Columbia University, and Colgate University. The dozens of campus alternative newspapers which receive training and support from the Collegiate Network, a project of Intercollegiate Studies Institute, have reported similar incidents over the past decade—and the resistance movement they have sparked, including David Horowitz’s Academic Freedom campaign.
The history of the “P.C. wars” tells us that those of us who favor free debate and the civil exchange of ideas face a long fight against an entrenched, implacable movement to transform universities into ideological seminaries and subject intellectual life to what critic Paul Gottfried has called a “secular theocracy.” Evan Maloney has played the happy heretic. He needs help now getting “Brainwashing 101” to full-length and into theaters. Friends of freedom should pony up.