The growing attack on free speech

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is author of 10 books on international and American politics, including the forthcoming “New Warfare:  Rethinking Rules for An Unruly World.”  In addition to teaching courses in international politics, international organization and law, and U.S. foreign policy, he has served as Chairperson of the Political Science Dept. at UM-St. Louis.

By Marty Rochester

On July 14, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon signed into law the Campus Free Expression Act, which prohibits public universities from restricting student speech to small “free speech zones” on campus. To their credit, the governor and state Legislature were attempting to counter recent trends that threaten First Amendment rights. 

What is going on here?

Earlier this summer, I was interviewed on Charlie Brennan’s radio show on KMOX (1120 AM) about the latest speech codes instituted on college campuses in America.  In particular, the University of California, Berkeley had just created limits on speech that were so outrageous as to leave me and others almost speechless. 

Listeners could have been forgiven for assuming that I was surely exaggerating the problem, except for the fact that they could have easily verified what I had to say by accessing the official website of the office of UC President Janet Napolitano, the former head of the Department of Homeland Security in  President Barack Obama’s administration.

Serendipity Ice Cream ad

Napolitano had instructed deans and department chairs to sensitize faculty to  refrain from using certain phrases that might be so offensive as to constitute microaggression against various minorities.

What were these incendiary words to be avoided? The website listed dozens of examples of “microaggression,” defined as “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.”   

To cite just three: 

• “America is the land of opportunity.”

• “America is a melting pot.”

• “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”

This does not exactly rise to the level of offense associated with Donald Trump or waving the Confederate flag. Indeed, you would think that any reasonable person would find this language totally innocent and innocuous, certainly not worthy of banning it from the classroom. 

However, in our age of uber-political correctness, such statements are now viewed as potentially inflammatory — at least by the liberal intelligentsia who now are the speech watchdogs on college campuses.

I agree that it is perfectly legitimate to debate the extent to which the United States is “a land of opportunity” or a “melting pot.”  There has been an ongoing disagreement over how much equality of opportunity actually exists and whether diverse cultures, for better or worse, have blended into American society. But the debate itself now has been foreclosed at a leading state university by eliminating one half of the argument from public discourse. 

As for whether “the most qualified person should get the job,” I struggle to find anything even remotely debatable about that proposition, much less offensive.

As nutty and shocking as the University of California actions might appear, it bears repeating that such speech codes have become commonplace at universities over the past couple of decades and are being pushed to new extremes. 

For example, a professor can be accused of microaggression if he or she so much as corrects the grammar on a paper written by a minority student. Many schools go so far as to urge the use of “trigger warnings” where, before students may be exposed to speakers who could present “uncomfortable” (aka conservative) views, they must be alerted in advance and provided a “safe space” for coping. 

What happened to the notion of promoting competing ideas, of promoting diversity? How about expecting young adults to develop thicker skins? 

University presidents are increasingly pressured not to wander too far off the PC reservation. When the president of Smith College recently told the student body that “all lives matter,” she quickly had to apologize for not specifying “black lives matter.”  

Not all universities are equally guilty of this phenomenon. The University of Missouri-Columbia, just three days after passage of the Campus Free Expression Act, conducted a diversity workshop that mirrored the ridiculous actions of the University of California. My university, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, has been spared much of this nonsense thanks to the leadership of our chancellor.

Still, even at UMSL, when I emailed colleagues about the UC infringement on speech, at least one dean reprimanded me for overstating the problem, insisting that Napolitano’s warnings were merely “advisory” rather than outright prohibitions. 

If I were giving advice to an untenured UC assistant professor, I would strongly recommend heeding the administration’s prescriptions rather than ignoring them. 

The right can be quite hypocritical at times, but the hypocrisy of the left here is truly staggering. Many of the same liberals who have railed against the Patriot Act and the National Security Agency, and who have supported Edward Snowden’s right to reveal classified government secrets, have not uttered a peep about the attack on the First Amendment and academic freedom by UC and other institutions.  

Only recently have some in liberal circles begun to speak out, such as commentator Kirsten Powers in her new book, “The Silencing,” and the Los Angeles Times editorial board, blasting the University of California for “squelching debate” through its “heavy-handed sensitivity training.” Hopefully, there will be further backlash against speech codes. 

Universities, especially, should promote the most speech, not the least. But the problem is not limited to the ivory tower. Recall Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley, too, feeling he had to apologize for saying “all lives matter” at a political gathering. 

The wider society should also be maximizing speech, yet all of us seem to be walking on eggshells these days in the workplace and elsewhere not to offend certain groups. 

Protests against white privilege, along with protests against affirmative action racial preferences, cartoon drawings of the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban or a portrait of Pope Benedict fashioned from thousands of condoms, marches in support of and opposed to Israeli BDS, and – yes, dare I say — permitting individuals to utter that “the most qualified person should get the job” should all fall within the boundaries of acceptable speech in our society, both on and off campus, however bothersome they may be to some people. 

It is one thing to take down statues of Robert E. Lee and other vestiges of the Confederacy in the name of evolving sensibilities. But what’s next in this current stifling environment — taking down the Statue of Liberty, that ultimate symbol of America as “the land of opportunity” and “the melting pot,” for fear some might take umbrage to it?