When free speech and political correctness collide

Sen Doug Whitsett

by Sen. Doug Whitsett

Universities have historically been the stronghold and the defenders of free speech. They have traditionally represented the ultimate forum for the discussion of disparate ideas and for vigorous debates.

During the 1960s and 70s, their passionate defense of the spoken word on campus was inviolable. Our nation was experiencing political and racial assassinations, desecration of our national flag, enduring the extremely unpopular conscription draft and Vietnam War, double digit inflation, double digit interest rates, wage controls and a variety of other economic, political and social upheavals. Student activists were occupying administrative buildings and staging “sit-ins” to disrupt campus activities.

Nevertheless, virtually any speech, no matter how offensive some of the ideas or beliefs expressed may have been to others, was not only tolerated, but welcomed on campus. On any given day, students were subject to the diverse and divisive rhetoric of Saul Alinsky, Huey Newton and the Black Panthers, communists, fascists, Marxists, sexists, racists, anti-Semites, anarchists, militants, anti-war protesters, advocates for illegal drugs and others too numerous to mention.

Many students were offended. Others were captivated. But neither students nor faculty nor administration expected or asked for the curtailment of the freedom to speak whatever was on their minds.

Half a century later, many universities appear to offer a very different viewpoint and a vastly dissimilar experience. Not only are university administrators consenting to student and faculty ultimatums to curtail free speech on campus, many appear to be complicit in the conflict.

Many activist college students and faculty today are so offended and hurt by disparate opinion that they expect, even demand, the suppression of any and all rhetoric with which they may disagree. They routinely demand and receive the resignation of university presidents and top administrators who they deem too slow in acquiescing to their ultimatums.

Further, students demand that universities create safe havens on campus where they can cloister themselves away from anything they believe to be offensive speech or behavior. They even request that campus rhetoric be examined for trigger words or phrases that might lead them to feel threatened or have anxious or upsetting feelings.

For instance, Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee warned students against wearing “culturally unaware” Halloween costumes. When one faculty member wondered if colleges had morphed into places of censure and prohibition, about 750 students, faculty and alumni signed a letter condemning her for “further degrading marginalized people.” When her Yale faculty physician husband suggested that “free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society,” he was surrounded by angry students who cursed him and heckled him to quit. In response, the President of Yale University told the students, “We failed you!”

While many university administrators and faculty appear to willingly take actions supportive of activist demands to quell free speech, some university students are using that freedom to vocally dissent. At Claremont McKenna, student editors wrote, “We are not immoral because we don’t buy the flawed rhetoric of a spiteful movement. We are not evil because we don’t want this movement to tear across our campuses completely unchecked. We are no longer afraid to be voices of dissent.”

That unbending and vocal First Amendment support is sadly missing among much of the professional news media. Incredibly, they are often complicit in supporting laws that may severely limit their own Constitutional right to freely express their opinions.

Patrick Henry is often attributed with saying while he may have disagreed with what a man said, he would defend to his death the man’s right to say it. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution establishes the concept he articulated in the supreme law of our nation.

It states in part: “Congress shall make no law…… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peacefully to assemble…..” Our country appears to be on course to abandon those fundamental rights of people in a free society.

That pathway appears to be guided by covenants adopted by the United Nations (UN).

The UN adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1966. This covenant states in part that “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.”

In 1969, the UN adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. It prohibits all incitement of racism and also requires its parties to outlaw hate speech and criminalize membership in racist organizations.

Hate speech may be defined as speech prohibited by law that attacks a person or group on the basis of attributes such as gender, ethnic origin, religion, race, disability or sexual orientation. Both Congress and state legislatures have enacted hate crimes making certain statements illegal when uttered or written in certain places or addressed to certain people.

Those laws can be divided into acts with separate but allegedly related purposes.

One class of laws is specifically intended to help maintain public order. An example is a law designed to prohibit the purposeful incitement of a riot.

The other class of laws include those with the alleged purpose of the protection human dignity. These laws include the prohibition of words or actions that may be perceived as attacking or being hurtful or hateful to a person or group on the basis of certain personal attributes.

In my opinion, many of these laws are at best Orwellian. The courts must assume the speaker’s intent while uttering certain words or phrases. It seems that assumption must be based on further conjecture regarding the speaker’s state of mind or what he or she was thinking at the time.

Moreover, whether the speech is determined to be illegal appears to depend on to whom the offensive speech is made, as well the location where the speech occurred. For instance, it appears that it is generally not considered illegal for members of the same race or same sexual orientation to publicly make derogatory and demeaning statements about one another. However, the same words or phrases uttered by someone of a different race or sexual orientation is generally considered hate speech.

Many of these laws have been upheld by state and federal courts of original jurisdiction and sustained on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. While I am not an attorney, I do question what part of the clear and concise wording of the First Amendment either they or I do not understand.

Senator Doug Whitsett is the Republican state senator representing Senate District 28 – Klamath Falls