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The freedom of speech has always proven to be one of the most malleable constitutional rights. Its restriction started out reasonably enough. No shouting “fire” in a crowded movie theatre. No threatening to harm or kill or bring a gun to school. No blatant hate-speech towards a particular race as it could detract from their feelings of safety and security, which are also human rights. These are all logical limitations as the speech could lead to harm towards another person.
But in the hyper-sensitive world we live in today, the chokehold on free speech is clenching tighter and tighter. The right to “feelings of safety and security” has been swallowed up by its bitchy half-sister: the right to “not be offended.” On college campuses, it has reached the point where the right to not be offended supersedes the right to freedom of speech, and those who do offend are punished.
A report conducted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education found that 59 percent of higher education institutions have policies that the group believes infringe on First Amendment rights.
Rutgers went so far as to say there is “no such thing as free speech,” as part of the university’s effort to prevent “bias incidents.”
But what’s truly alarming is that the majority of those punished for speaking freely are those who do not conform to a strict set of far-left, liberal ideals.
A quick scroll through recent cases of campus free speech violations, exhaustively documented in the online archives of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), will point to an alarmingly biased trend. See if you can spot it:
•Dozens of cases of students punished for expressing religious beliefs, like this one at Brown
•Several attacks on student-run satire publications, like this one at Rutgers
•And even more of a crackdown on professors (mainly for “biased language”), whose lessons are becoming so regulated, colleges are becoming as standardized as elementary schools
FIRE lists freedom of speech attacks against more liberal ideals, too, like this LGBT group denied campus recognition at Hampton, but the majority go straight for the right.
Fraternities are also constantly having their freedom of speech violated, arguably more so than any other group of people on college campuses. The issue is once again in the forefront with the ongoing investigation into the “Kanye Western”-themed party co-hosted by Sigma Phi Epsilon and Alpha Phi at the University of California, Los Angeles. The partygoers did not intend for their costumes to be construed as blackface – they claim to have been wearing charcoal, complete with fake gold props, to appear as miners in reference to the Kanye West song “Gold Diggers.” But even if they did intend to wear blackface, one lawyer/columnist for the Washington Post argues that they would have been within their first amendment rights (that’s not to say I personally believe blackface is an O.K. form of self expression).
But the suspension of the fraternity and sorority is likely unconstitutional. Costumes that convey a message are treated as speech for First Amendment purposes (see, e.g., Schacht v. United States (1970) and Cohen v. California(1971)). And a university may not punish speech based on its allegedly racist content; see, e.g., Rosenberger v. Rector (1995), which holds that a university may not discriminate against student speech based on its viewpoint. (Note that there is some controversy about whether the charcoal on the UCLA students’ faces was meant to make the wearers look black, or to make them look like miners, referring to Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” song; but that turns out not to be relevant to the First Amendment issue.)
The columnist, Eugene Volokh, also says that UCLA has already violated Sig Ep’s freedom of speech by placing the fraternity on suspension.
My biggest concern with all of this is where we are headed. Punishing people for freedom of speech is a slippery slope. Things aren’t too over reactionary yet, but I fear that in 10 years time, we’ll have people going to jail for saying swear words in public. Just look at some of the stuff fraternities have gotten in trouble for that fall under the umbrella of free speech:
•Referencing the potato famine in a costume that says, “Kiss me I’m a famished potato” (seriously)
To protect our speech, many have taken a PC approach. They’ll reference the line between appropriate and offensive and say, “Just because you CAN do something, doesn’t mean you SHOULD do it.” But the best way to preserve our freedom of speech is to turn that statement around on the people saying it. I prefer: “Just because you CAN be offended by something, doesn’t mean you SHOULD be offended by it.”.
Image via Shutterstock