A nationwide organization, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), is waging a crusade for academic freedom against expanded federal guidelines on sexual harassment. In a letter of explanation sent last month to the University of Montana, the Departments of Justice and Education have now defined harassment in such a way as to make every student and faculty member subject to government investigation. Sexual harassment has now been expanded to cover “verbal conduct” that the listener considers offensive. This new definition goes beyond the guidelines issued by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights in 2003, stipulating that speech could only be treated as actionable if it went beyond “the mere expression of views, words and symbols that some person finds offensive.” According to the earlier definition, such an offending act “had to be evaluated from the perspective of a reasonable person in the alleged victim’s position, considering the circumstances, including the alleged victim’s age.”
FIRE is treating the Obama administration’s revised guidelines as a direct, deliberate attack on the First Amendment’s right of free speech. The guidelines require university administrations to enforce speech codes that, according to FIRE president Greg Lukianoff, illegitimately limit what students are allowed to say to each other and to their professors. If the academic administration fails to play along, it can suffer a variety of penalties, including the curtailing of funds from the Department of Education, government investigation, and lawsuits. This form of blackmail is clearly intended to restrict the already severely limited right of speech on American campuses.
Allow me to underline for the millionth time my revulsion for Political Correctness, in all its odious forms. In the remarks that follow, I am not defending this obscenity that has, perhaps irreversibly, poisoned American higher education. And as someone who fought this demon (unavailingly) for many decades, I may be the last person on earth who can be accused of consorting with it. But certain circumstances must be brought up in order to grasp our current problem.
It is debatable whether anyone’s First Amendment right has been violated since the actors in this case are aware of and at least implicitly agree to the limits placed on their freedom when they become part of a college. They are working at institutions that are steeped in nutty ideology; and if the kids and their parents miss this message when they take a tour of the campus, they will be pounded with it during orientation week. Although there are schools that don’t hammer you over the head with multicultural nonsense, most consumers don’t opt for those products. Let the buyer beware! They are certainly not the victims of misleading advertising. And since the overwhelming majority of college-age students voted for this presidential administration, this constituency is getting exactly what it endorsed.
It would be laughable to claim that the faculty is having its liberties taken away, given the self-evident fact that they eagerly compete for jobs in places that have about as much intellectual freedom as Soviet Gulags. As embattled multiculturalists, they are usually far more hysterical than President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder when it comes to inflicting mental straightjackets on the rest of us. Notice all the faculties that are up in arms over the new guidelines. You could probably count them in a broom closet. Judging by my experience, most faculties think the government isn’t going far enough in requiring white male Christians to be sensitive. Again I would urge those who find such an environment unwelcome to look for a less upsetting job.
The problem FIRE is highlighting has been around for decades, under Republican and Democratic administrations alike. Under Bush I and Clinton in the 1990s, the Department of Education was issuing guidelines on how universities should behave if they wished to avoid “creating hostile work environments for minorities.” The Department of Education tried to impose some slight reasonableness on this process under Bush II, at a time when colleges were introducing painfully restrictive speech codes on their own. What the government should have done was to get itself out of the business of funding and controlling higher education. But if it wished to exercise its clout positively (which neither party had done), it should have threatened to cut off funding to academic institutions that muzzled open discussion and normal social interactions. Instead it issued some meaningless fluff, which did nothing to stop the further throttling of free speech and open discussion on campuses.
If FIRE’s leaders wish to celebrate the 2003 guidelines of the Bush II administration, please count me out. I’ve no interest in marching backward from a bad thing to one that is minimally less awful. All federal agencies that seek to control “verbal conduct” should be kept out of our lives.