The Progressive War on Free Speech – Part Two

Published April 11, 2016

O’Sullivan’s Law, named after British journalist John O’Sullivan, holds that any organization or enterprise that is not expressly right wing will become left wing over time.

Nowhere does that law hold more true than on American college and university campuses, where surveys and campaign donation records show that leftist faculty routinely outnumber conservative faculty, and that faculty and administrators tend to donate to Democratic candidates for office over Republican candidates by ratios of close to 100 to 1.

And where faculty and administrators lead, can students be far behind? 

One need look no further than the current Democratic Presidential campaign, in which Bernie Sanders, an avowed socialist whose campaign platform is indistinguishable from that of the Communist Party USA, draws much of his support from young college students lured by the unrealistic promise of “free” tuition for the education they largely aren’t receiving.

The reason college students no longer assuredly receive a genuine education is that, bowing to the political correctness of the day, true core curricula in the classics and Western civilization are largely anathema.  Stanford students who marched around in the 1980s chanting “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Western Civ Has Got to Go!” largely got their wish. 

When the Bass brothers of Texas donated $20 million to Yale College in 1991 with the express directive that the money be used to fund core courses in Western Civilization, the University refused to go along with the brothers’ directives and gave the money back – despite an ongoing fundraising drive. 

Instead of teaching the classics, American universities are busy falling all over themselves to be politically correct, imperiling free speech and academic freedom in the process.  How did all this happen?  Mostly through federal government intervention.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, as amended, prohibits discrimination in employment based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information.  Such discrimination also includes “harassment,” which the EEOC defines as “unwelcome conduct” directed against a person in one of these protected classes where “1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.”

Title VII applies only to conditions of employment, which affects faculty and staff and, perhaps, graduate students and research assistant paid by the college or university, but not students themselves unless they also work for the institution.  That’s where Title IX comes in.

Signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1972, Title IX of the Education Amendments forbids educational programs or activities receiving Federal financial assistance from excluding any person from participation in, being denied the benefits of, or being the subject of discrimination under, any such program or activity on the basis of sex.  That sound simple enough:  What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.  And because almost all colleges accept students who take out federal loans, even private institutions are subject to government oversight.

Back in 1972, with the rare exception of hermaphrodites, the law considered the existence of only two sexes:  male and female.  And even at colleges and universities that admitted both sexes (some Ivy League schools did, not for example, before 1969), students were largely segregated by sex, at least officially, in their living, sleeping, and bathroom arrangements.  Many state laws required that men and women use separate bathrooms, and some schools even enforced parietal rules that restricted the hours and locations in which students of the opposite sex could be in one another’s company.

This all sounds quaintly Victorian these days, but look at the result in today’s hyper-sexualized, hyper-liberal world:  fights over who gets to use which locker room and a disputed but widely-touted claim that, before she graduates, one out of every five female students will be the subject of a sexual assault. 

Genuine sexual assault is a serious crime and should be reported and dealt with as such.  But the insistence of the federal Office of Civil Rights (OCR) that “sexual harassment” means “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” and includes “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature” can lead to some absurd results

As of March 2016 the OCR has investigated over 100 colleges and universities for such alleged Title IX violations as failing to respond to allegations of sexual assault until a complaint had been filed (to what does one respond if no the filing of a complaint?) and failing to consider the need for “broadly addressing the issue of sexual harassment” even after complainants requested anonymity and confidentiality.

In December 2013, a female sociology professor’s popular class on “Deviance in US Society” (no classics here!) at the University of Colorado-Boulder led to her early retirement after administrators told her that, in a “post-Sandusky” environment, the class entailed too much risk.  Small loss, perhaps, but a Louisiana State University early childhood education associate professor also lost her job in 2015 for simply allegedly using “salty language” that same December.

More famously, Northwestern University students petitioned to have Professor Laura Kipnis investigated for “retaliation” under Title IX simply for writing a piece about the absurdity of it all for The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe.”  Bizarrely, the Faculty Senate President who accompanied Kipnis to sessions with investigators and the University President, who wrote a Wall Street Journal Op-ed defending academic freedom, were also targeted for alleged “retaliation.”

“For the record,” in the words of Kipnis, “this isn’t retaliation.  It’s intellectual disagreement … what’s the good of having a freedom you’re afraid to use?”