It's an age-old question: Can American colleges and universities be fervent defenders of free speech and simultaneously serve as a safe harbor for students from all backgrounds and walks of life? Now, that debate is once again brimming to the surface thanks to a potential rule that will be up for discussion this week at the University of California.
On Thursday, the University of California Board of Regents will discuss a new policy to protect students against “acts and expressions of intolerance.” Critics say the policy will do nothing to curtail discrimination on campus, and is instead destined to restrict students’ freedom of speech.
The proposed policy defines intolerance as, “unwelcome conduct motivated by discrimination against, or hatred toward, other individuals or groups.” It is not meant as a disciplinary policy and its authors explicitly state it should not be interpreted as a limit on the freedom of speech in any way.
The policy is a bold attempt to contend with the discrimination that exists on every college campus, proponents say. Calls for action to stamp out harmful acts and views have reached a fever pitch following reports of sexual violence and sexually charged chants of frat boys. The University of California system already has strict anti-discrimination rules in place but this measure would take those one step further in prohibiting the expression of discriminatory thoughts -- not just actions.
Specifically, the policy condemns acts of vandalism or graffiti that use symbols of hate or prejudice, prohibits anyone from stating that people with disabilities are less capable than those without and outlaws opinions that any ethnic or racial group is “less ambitious, less hardworking or talented, or more threatening than other groups.” It also aims to create a more equal playing field for illegal immigrants who are enrolled by prohibiting anyone from questioning a student’s ability to serve in a leadership role due to citizenship status or national origin.
Support for such protections against all forms of discrimination and harassment is growing, and not just at the University of California. In 2013, the departments of Justice and Education broadened the definition of sexual harassment from statements that were “objectively offensive” to those that are merely “unwelcome.”
Lately, college students have called for prior notice known as trigger warnings against potentially harmful language taught in class or posted online. Those efforts were detailed in a recent Atlantic story, in which the authors suggest that such sensitivity is not conducive to personal growth or mental stability.
But critics of the policy say it will restrict free speech or incriminate students and faculty for making honest remarks that might be interpreted as insensitive -- such as telling noncitizens they cannot become president or implying a woman could not join the football team.
Editor Robby Soave of Reason.com said he doubts the university could protect free speech while also defending students against the vague notion of intolerance and fears that free speech will loose out.
Eugene Volokh, a tenured law professor at the University of California Los Angeles, said in an opinion piece in the Washington Post that the rule would stifle frank discussion among students, faculty and graduate assistants.
“When these students and faculty members are told that certain views about disabilities, about race or ethnicity, or [by obvious extension] about sexual orientation, sex or religion have ‘no place at the University’ -- and violate others’ rights to be ‘free from’ such ‘expressions’ -- will they feel free to openly discuss these topics?” he asks. “Or will they realize that they had best follow the orthodoxy?”