There is a new controversy over university speech codes with a “red light” rating given to the University of Wisconsin (Oshkosh) and its prohibition of “insulting” or “demeaning” comments, including insulting someone over their political views.
The UW Oshkosh policy states
“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.”
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. Thus, if a student calls conservatives “fascists” or Democrats “communists” it could be cited as demeaning or insulting. Likewise, protests against the military on campus could trigger such a rule.
The policy also professes a strong commitment to free speech while reserving the right to bar speech under this sweeping definition.
Such codes allow for arbitrary and biases enforcement. 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. We have been discussing efforts to fire professors who voice dissenting views on various issues including an effort to oust a leading economist from the University of Chicago as well as a leading linguistics professor at Harvard and a literature professor at Penn. Sites like Lawyers, Guns, and Money feature writers like Colorado Law Professor Paul Campus who call for the firing of those with opposing views (including myself). Such campaigns have targeted teachers and students who contest the evidence of systemic racism in the use of lethal force by police or offer other opposing views in current debates over the pandemic, reparations, electoral fraud, or other issues.
The Wisconsin (Oshkosh) speech code invites such arbitrary enforcement. As a state school, Wisconsin is subject to the protections afforded to free speech. Thus, it may not actually enforce this poorly written code. However, the 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. Colleges are supposed to be places of passionate debate over social and political issues. That will often include harsh or insulting comments but higher education should also be teaching tolerance for opposing viewpoints. Instead, this speech code is teaching what others should conform their speech to avoid anything that you deem insulting or demeaning. It creates a learned type of fragility and rigidity in responding to the opposing views of others.
When you feel passionately, every opposing view can be viewed as “toxic.” Indeed, as raised by SNL, such moments can occur in deep space: