There is a disturbing story how this week concerning the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and specifically Commissioner Michael Yaki, a Democratic appointee who was a former senior adviser to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Yaki spoke on sexual harassment law in education, a subject on which I have previously written to express my concerns over the loss of due process rights for accused students. Yaki’s comments however seem to threaten core free speech principles as he laid out his view of the need to curtail harmful speech. Yaki spoke of the need to outlaw unpopular or what he considers degrading speech because college students are too impressionable.
He highlighted the types of speech that he want banned as including certain types of fraternity or parody displays considered offensive. He also included pageants as possible speech crimes due to the dangers inherent in “a situation involving women” in which they “parade around in skimpy clothing and turn in some show or something.”
He then added: “I mean where do you think you can, that the university can’t deal with ensuring the route it has environment that is not oppressive or hostile because obviously a campus, especially certain types of campuses where there’s a lot of — where — that are geographically compact, that have a lot of working and living situations in a close area to create a campus atmosphere . . . Doesn’t that gravitate toward having greater ability to proscribe certain types of conduct that have the ability to escalate beyond what anyone would consider to be reasonable or acceptable?”
Whatever that may mean, Yaki then made the most dangerous turn of his comments in suggesting that speech limitations are appropriate on college campuses under the same theory as applied to elementary students: “It has to do with science. More and more, the vast majority, in fact — I think — overall in bodies of science is that young people, not just K through 12 but also between the ages of 16 to 20, 21 is where the brain is still in a stage of development.” Yaki’s distinction between “the juvenile or adolescent or young adult brain processes information” and “adult brains” would allow for sweeping speech limitations. He simply declared that even college brains are “vastly different from the way that we adults do.” He added that “when we sit back and talk about what is right or wrong in terms of First Amendment jurisprudence from a reasonable person’s standpoint, we are really not looking into the same referential viewpoint.” This distinction, he argued, offers “very good and compelling reasons why broader policies and prohibitions on conduct in activities and in some instances speech are acceptable on a college campus level that might not be acceptable say in an adult work environment or in an adult situation.”
We have seen in recent years increasing demands for the curtailment of speech as hate crimes or forms of discrimination. We have even seen professors engage in alleged crimes to stop speech on subjects like abortion. While Republicans were once criticized in the 1960s as hostile to campus speech, it now appears that Democrats are more often demanding the criminalization or the banning of different forms of speech. The suggestion that college brains are undeveloped and requiring protection from bad speech is truly unnerving.