On September 19, 2005, I testified before the Pennsylvania House of Representatives' Select Committee on Student Academic Freedom and noted that virtually every public university in the Commonwealth enforces a speech code -- a policy that unconstitutionally restricts the free speech rights of their students.
Few policies strike more deeply at the heart of true academic freedom than these codes, which suppress the free speech rights of every student on campus. In reality, the deliberately vague language of these codes allows administrations all too often to play favorites -- so the politically favored can be as "provocative" or "challeninging" as they would like, while those with minority views often find their arguments labeled "intolerant" or "hateful" (Of course, the odds of prosecution only increase when the speech is conservative and deals with critical issues like religion, sexuality, and gender.)
Unfortunately, the response to my testimony was a collective shrug from Pennsylvania's public universities and from their allies on the Select Committee. In fact, just moments after I detailed the extent of the unlawful policies, Representative Dan Surra, a Democrat, called the Committee's entire investigation "a colossal waste of time."
Apparently, his academic allies agreed. In the hearings that followed, Pennsylvania college administrators systematically ignored evidence of speech codes and instead lauded their own so-called "academic freedom" policies, which purport to protect students from unfair or ideologically-biased grading policies. In reality, few students even know what "academic freedom" is, much less the contents of policies that are rarely provided in student handbooks, and typically applied primarily to faculty.
So, in short, the collective message of Pennsylvania's public universities (and their apologists) to the people' elected representatives on the Select Committee was "move along . . . nothing to see here." These university administrators regard academia as their private domain, and legislators as unwelcome intruders, illegitimately flexing control over the expenditure of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. To academics, it's apparently insulting even to suggest that they should be held accountable to the very government that pays their salaries.
No, Pennsylvania's academic censors have not (yet) listened to the legislature. But will they listen to a federal judge? We will soon find out.
This week, Alfred Joseph Fluehr, a Pennsylvania State University sophomore and political science major, filed a lawsuit against the commonwealth's flagship state university. Represented by the Alliance Defense Fund's new Center for Academic Freedom, Fluehr asserts that the university has imposed an unconstitutional speech code on its students and is engaging in systematic viewpoint discrimination in the dispensation of student activity fee funds.
Penn State has erected a truly Orwellian structure of repression. The university declares (in one of those unintentionally humorous sentences that only an academic could write): "Acts of intolerance will not be tolerated," and then states that "intolerance":
Refers to an attitude, feeling or belief in furtherance of which an individual acts to intimidate, threaten or show contempt for other individuals or groups based on characteristics such as age, ancestry, color, disability or handicap, national origin, political belief, race, religious creed, sex, sexual orientation or veteran status.
In other words, if a student shows "contempt" for, say, Islamic fascism, or same-sex "marriage," that student is subject to punishment. And, just to show that, at Penn State, intolerance is no laughing matter, students can also be punished if they engage in "unwelcome banter," or even "teasing or jokes" that depict a member of a "protected class" in a "stereotypical or demeaning manner."
But the most chilling aspect of Penn State's speech code is its system of enforcement and information. At Penn State, students are encouraged to inform on their fellow students' speech activities (even in private conversation) through a website and telephone hotline called "Report Hate." Be careful what you say on campus, because Big Brother (and all his ideological friends) may be listening -- with the snitch hotline on speed dial.
Even the shortest historical memory underscores the staggering hypocrisy of this informer line. Four years ago, the Left (including of course the campus Left) reacted with outrage when the Bush Administration proposed creating a Terrorism Information and Prevention System (TIPS) that would recruit utility workers and others to help report potentially suspicious terrorist activity. The program was proof to many that "John Ashcroft's America" was only one small step away from fascism.
In the parallel universe of campus thinking, an informer program designed to prevent acts of deadly violence against civilians was a profound and offensive violation of civil liberties, while a system that encourages individuals to report on their friends and neighbors' private speech is just another weapon in the war against so-called "intolerance."
Apparently, civil liberties cannot yield to the terror threat, but we must sacrifice even our most basic freedoms to defend against the horrifying danger of "intolerance."
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