Free Expression

At your own risk

by: James Braid

College, in theory, is a place where the unlimited airing of ideas is encouraged.  Free expression is supposed to be one of the highest values of a college classroom.  Nowhere else is this the case.  In the working world, and in our future social gatherings, social nicety will dominate intellectual rigor and discourse, which is fine.  No one wants to be that guy at the party who keeps bringing up uncomfortable topics.  But college? College is supposed to be an entirely different animal.  The problem is, in 2012, the insides of our universities are just as stiflingly uncontroversial as the real world.

An incident in my English class put this unpleasant state of affairs into stark relief.  It’s a class on genre, identity and culture.  On the first day, the professor showed us two rap music videos.  One was Nicki Minaj song “Beez in the Trap.”  It was a typical rap video, with women dancing in various states of undress while Nicki and 2Chainz gestured aggressively and lip-synched.  The other was pretty unusual.  It featured a gay black rapper named Lef1 giving a nearly naked male model in a Pikachu mask a lapdance.  The video was clearly intended as a celebration of homosexuality and a subversive take on the cartoonish masculinity of most hip-hop.  Showing it was intended to make us question our assumptions about what constituted rap music and by extension other genres of art and media.  When the video was over, the professor asked the class if they noticed anything different about it.  Not a single student out of 25 was willing to point out its obvious, deliberate gayness.  They were too concerned with being thought homophobic.  This is an egregious example of political correctness on campus, but it jives with my experience in other classes and with the experiences of my peers.

I suggest that this studied blandness of undergraduate discourse is the result of the hate speech codes that have become ubiquitous at American universities. These codes were enacted during the 1990s in order to eradicate so-called discriminatory language on college campuses.  According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) 65% of American universities have “red light” policies.  UNC has its own policies, couched carefully to comply with the multiple Supreme Court rulings that have struck down hate speech codes across the country. It prohibits “unlawful harassment, directed toward a particular person or persons, based upon the person’s race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, creed, disability or veteran status.”  Harassment, according to our august Dean of Students, includes “remarks about sexual activity, sexually explicit jokes or anecdotes,” and “barking.”  While I haven’t heard anyone barking on our campus, sex jokes appear to be endemic to Carolina.  (Not that this columnist has ever let an off-color jest pass his lips.  That’s an honor code violation.)  Our community living standards policy demands students “avoid using the written or spoken word in a way that demeans, defames, offends, slanders or discriminates.”

If prohibiting dirty jokes and rudeness weren’t bad enough, in practice, harassment means whatever university administrators want it to mean.  At St. Augustine a student was expelled for complaining about the college’s response to the tornado damage.  A student in the Georgia state school system was expelled for protesting the construction of two campus parking garages. The list of national and regional outrages against the First Amendment is extensive.  Carolina’s administration has avoided this kind of blatantly fascist behavior thus far, but we’ve had incidents of our own as well.

In 2004 UNC Professor Elise Crystal accused one of her students of making “violent, heterosexist comments,” of “hate speech” and of creating a “hostile environment.”  Fortunately, the young man avoided punishment, but that incident also occurred before the institution of UNC’s speech code.  When Tom Tancredo came to our campus, the police had to use tear gas to disperse the protestors.  These are not actions that encourage open dialogue.

Every day students, particularly conservative students, face the decision to speak in class or not to.  To share their particular views or not.  In the face of the overwhelming ideological uniformity of our professors and student body, it takes a great deal of courage to stand up, be uncool, and challenge the instructor or another student.  It’s absolutely senseless to make this process anymore difficult or challenging than it already is.  When the specter of academic sanctions and even expulsion hangs over our lecture halls, silence becomes the safe policy.  As always, the answer to wrong speech isn’t suppression; it’s more speech.