Count me among those concerned about the politically correct views and values being drilled into college students these days. Of particular concern is the lack of respect for free speech — all cloaked in the politically correct haze of not wanting anyone to be offended. One of the people who fights the censorship trend on campuses is Robert Shibley of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Shibley recently spoke with Carolina Journal Radio’s Mitch Kokai about the disturbing trend toward crushing speech on campuses.
Kokai: Most of us who are listening today don’t spend much time on college campuses these days, but why should this concern everyone?
Shibley: Unfortunately, what we’re seeing is that this attitude, this jaundiced attitude, this crimped attitude toward free speech that is being inculcated on campus, not just through, you know, what professors might be teaching, but really just through the idea that you’re living in this authoritarian sort of Orwellian universe — you get used to these kinds of restrictions on speech. You start to think they’re normal. You start to think they’re good, and you’re being told they’re good in many cases and that good people would want to silence offensive opinions. And those people are leaving campus, and they’re taking that attitude off campus with them, and it’s starting to crimp the idea of free speech in this country.
You know, America is unique in our respect for free speech. But, unfortunately, it’s becoming less so with each passing year. We saw the “disinvitation season” phenomenon this year with Condoleezza Rice, with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, with [International Monetary Fund] head Christine Lagarde — all of whom either backed out or [were] uninvited from giving speeches, simply because the universities didn’t want the controversy or disagreed with them, or they wanted to give in to people who were demanding that they be silenced. And, you know, these are big-name people. If it’s gotten to the point where these really accomplished people, and women in this case, and many others, are being told they can’t speak on campus, who can?
Kokai: It’s very much a concern. All of the examples we’ve been talking about so far have been in other states. Some people might hear this and say, “Too bad for them, but things are fine here in North Carolina.” Are things fine in North Carolina?
Shibley: I think when it comes to the free speech, they are a little bit better than average. I think part of that is because of the historical significance of the UNC-Chapel Hill speaker ban, from decades ago, as sort of … North Carolina got an early lesson on: How do we want to regulate who’s able to speak on campus? So North Carolina had an early lesson that was thankfully decided in favor of free speech there. And so I think there’s a legacy of that.
Also, North Carolina’s universities, thankfully, their speech codes are generally less severe than those in many other states. I think Illinois is one of the worst. North Carolina is doing pretty well. Virginia is among the best when it comes to respecting free speech on campus.
And North Carolina also has — not a free-speech issue, but they have the right to counsel on college campuses. And so, … administrators know now that if you are dragged in front of a campus tribunal for something like this, you’re going to have an attorney with you, or you may have an attorney with you who can make the argument, saying, “Hey, you know what? The First Amendment prohibits what you’re trying to do here.” So it’s an important safeguard, too.
So we’re lucky to live in North Carolina for that reason. There’s a lot of improvement that can take place and that should take place, and that’s something I want to work on as a North Carolinian here. But we are fortunate to live in a state that’s better than average when it comes to that.
Kokai: Our time is running short, but when you look over the recent history of these types of cases, are things about the same as they had been in recent years, or are they getting worse or maybe even getting a little better?
Shibley: The disturbing thing that we’re seeing is an increasing amount of the demands for censorship are coming from students, rather than faculty or administrators. And it’s sad to see students have been miseducated in the K-12 system, and they’re taking that with them to the college system, which is also not educating them properly, to teach them the value of free speech. That said, you know, six years ago, 79 percent of public colleges had laughably unconstitutional speech codes. Now it’s down to 58 percent, so that’s a big improvement, but it should be zero. The law requires that it be zero, so that’s why we’ve launched our lawsuit effort.