Sunday, December 6, 2015

Free Speech is Taking a Beating on Campus

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of two columns from Thomas L. Steiger on the subject of free speech on college campuses. 

The events at the University of Missouri and Yale last month have pushed questions of free speech and freedom of the press into the limelight. I’ve been thinking about free speech and its meaning in our society today since ISU’s “microdrama” surrounding free speech when the Chief of ISU Public Safety sent an email to all students pointing out that the evangelizing by Terre Haute’s own fiery modern circuit riders, Brother Jed, Sister Cindy, and I’m sure in spirit, “Mad Max”, was protected speech under the US Constitution.

I don’t know what precipitated it, but I’m guessing that some ISU students who didn’t like the street preacher’s insults of “fornicator,” “whore,” “whore monger,” and “sinner” either complained or perhaps got physical, because the preachers were then relocated with a barricade around them with a sign that read “THIS IS PROTECTED SPEECH YOU HAVE THE OPTION TO LISTEN OR IGNORE WALK AWAY OR STAY YOU MAY ALSO PARTICIPATE THREATENING OR INTIMIDATING CONDUCT WILL NOT BE ALLOWED.”

I was surprised by this and began watching the students interact with the street preachers. The angry students worry me. I saw no one trying to use humor to argue back. I know our students are religious and many know their bibles and have paid attention to the lessons of their home church, but few tried to argue with the preachers at that level, instead people were googling things to hurl back to the preachers.

Brother Jed, Sister Cindy and (now departed) Mad Max first insulted me when I was a 17-year-old freshman at the University of Florida. Holding court on the Plaza of the Americas with often 100s of students mocking back at them was great entertainment in a pre- Internet time. I recall Jed calling me a whore monger. I actually was familiar with the term, my preference for 1940s serial detective novels taught me a lot. As an awkward 17-year-old on a campus of 60 percent males, I wished I was a whore monger.

Jed, if you have never seen him, has quite an act. It’s dramatic and very physical. We learned to imitate it and often would line up behind Jed and go through his motions with him. Sometimes he would get agitated with us. We never threatened him. We mocked him; laughed at him and each other. I don’t recall any anger. I saw intense anger, perhaps hatred, as ISU students yelled “you preach hate” at the street preachers.

Because of the threatened boycott of one of the sacred rites of fall advertising, SEC football, by 30 African American gladiators (football players) the attention of the nation was momentarily fixed. The hunger striker never seemed to make the news. But, by god, threaten Saturday football in the SEC and stuff happens. A university president and chancellor are toppled. But it was the student reporter getting poor treatment and a liberal journalism prof stopping the reporter from doing his job that really hijacked the show. Follow that up with the controversy at Yale over Halloween costumes and you now have this essay.

Conservative reactions to the Yale incident, where the Yale administration sent out an email to the students to be culturally sensitive regarding their Halloween costumes and a faculty member who thought the Administration’s official email was a bit heavy handed and encouraged the students to express themselves and for others to just look away or ignore a costume they didn’t like, led to an eruption on campus where the faculty were harangued, apologies demanded, threats made, etc. Look it up, it’s a fascinating peek into the lives of some of our most privileged students.

Conservatives have jumped on this with their usual memes around such topics with the “pussification” of America, which is nothing more than a not-so-subtle complaint about women’s greater equality. One thing has changed on American college campuses, there are more women than men today and while there are still some areas that are still heavily male, they are dwindling.

Another conservative meme, one artfully crafted by that noted sociologist George Will (anyone who knows him will smile at me calling him a sociologist) blamed “higher ed progressivism” for the debacle at Yale. Really? So a year or two at Yale causes this? Never mind the 12-14 years of private school education among a select “people like us” atmosphere. Or that Yale students aren’t like “government” school university students who attend “public” (said with derision) universities where the grounds are public property and free speech must be respected. It’s not just a school policy as it is at Yale, but American Constitutional Law that protects it at a government school like ISU.

Liberals are having a hard time responding to these issues. They can’t seem to deal with the contradictions. It’s OK, use the contradictions to move the discussion along. Use data, evidence, and reason. Oh, and throw in “nuance.” That’s always a winner.

Next week: As public rights erode, private rights expand.

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