As speech codes sweep the nation, the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh (UW-Oshkosh) has put in place a policy that is attempting to police “insulting” and “demeaning” speech regarding, among other things, “political views.”
“If you don’t have anything nice to say then don’t say anything at all.” Likely all Americans have heard that phrase or a similar one from their parent or guardian. The sentiment is a good one, and it is admirable to encourage mutual respect and kind words, but are speech guidelines the right way to honor what our parents told us?
UW-Oshkosh issued a policy ostensibly to foster such a spirit of kindness. Known as “Shared Principles to Guide Interactions Among Members of the University Community,” it says in part,
“All members of the University have a responsibility to promote and a right to expect … an environment that is free of harassment and free of insulting and demeaning comments and epithets based on race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, age, disability, military status, socioeconomic status, family status, or political views; and consistent enforcement of federal, state, and university protections against discriminatory treatment yet is free from any official speech codes.”
That sounds good on the surface. After all, what American wants others to be insulted based on their socioeconomic status, race, disability, or any other category? Critics warn, however, that the policy hinders free speech and could be used as a political bludgeon.
Law professor and constitutional expert Jonathan Turley was troubled by the policy, explaining, “So under this standard, a student or faculty member could be punished for insulting or demeaning the ‘political views’ of another person. It is a standard (like many) that is strikingly subjective. It is triggered by the reaction of others to speech.”
Turley warns that enforcement of such policies has historically been unequal, arbitrary, and biased, noting,
“We have seen very different responses from universities based on what groups or views are being attacked on racial or gender or political grounds. When conservative faculty or controversial speakers are targeted, few officials or fellow professors have stepped forward to denounce such campaigns. The same is not true when controversies have arisen for statements on the left … [T]he greatest concern is the chilling effect on the speech of students or faculty who do not want to risk being singled out for speech violations. The University should rewrite its speech code to create the opposite presumption in favor of the protection of diverse viewpoints.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) this month awarded UW-Oshkosh policy its worst “red light” speech code rating because it is “incompatible” in its goals, promising that students can expect an environment free from insulting and demeaning comments but also expect to be protected from any official speech codes.
They suggested that UW-Oshkosh officials reference the more workable University of Southern Mississippi policy, which says,
The Southern Miss Standard was developed to embody the values we hope residents possess. At the same time, the university is strongly committed to freedom of expression. Consequently, these principles do not constitute university policy and are not intended to interfere in any way with a resident’s personal freedoms. We hope, however, that residents will voluntarily endorse these common principles, thereby contributing to the traditions and scholarly heritage left by those who preceded them, and will thus leave Southern Miss a better place for those who follow.
The policy goes on to explain that implicit within the standard is a “respect for language that is appropriate, never obscene, and neither demeans nor intimidates.” Its introduction, however, assures students that the school does not have a policy that will restrict free speech.
If the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh is truly trying to create a community that does not treat others poorly and results in an environment of polite debate and intellectual discussion, then that is to be applauded. Speech codes, however, are usually weaponized to restrict free speech and disparately impacts unpopular views. In the case of higher education in today’s woke environment, that almost certainly means Christian or conservative views.
Free speech, even and especially speech that offends, should be protected. It is essential if we are to have a liberal society that allows all to speak. College is a time and place where students should be able to freely challenge each other’s views and grow in their knowledge, critical thinking skills, and ability to persuade, not a time to be coddled. Those challenges and opinions should be voiced in a kind and respectful manner — but they must be voiced if we are to remain a free and truthful country.