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Do Students Have the ‘Right’ to Be 'Free from Expressions of Intolerance’?

Do Students Have the ‘Right’ to Be 'Free from Expressions of Intolerance’?: UCLA (Via Wikipedia user Aegis Maelstrom).

UCLA (Via Wikipedia user Aegis Maelstrom).

Many free speech advocates are fond of saying that the “right not to be offended” does not exist. But for students of the University of California public university system, that may soon change.

According to Eugene Volokh, a professor of law at UCLA, the Regents of the University of California’s Committee on Education Policy will discuss a proposed policy titled “Statement of Principles Against Intolerance” at a meeting later this week. The statement specifically claims that students and faculty have a right not to be exposed to “intolerance.”

“Everyone in the University community has the right to study, teach, conduct research and work free from acts and expressions of intolerance,” the statement reads. It then goes on to define intolerance as:

…unwelcome conduct motivated by discrimination against, or hatred toward, other individuals or groups. It may take the form of acts of violence or intimidation, threats, harassment, hate speech, derogatory language reflecting stereotypes or prejudice, or inflammatory or derogatory use of culturally recognized symbols of hate, prejudice, or discrimination.

Right. So. Does the Flying Spaghetti Monster (and his blessed noodly goodness) count as a culturally recognized symbol of prejudice or discrimination? Its entire purpose is to (hilariously) mock and ridicule religious people and their faith.

According to the statement, the policy “applies to attacks on individuals or groups” but doesn’t apply to “the free exchange of ideas in keeping with the principles of academic freedom and free speech.” It also claims the policy will not apply to “course content” or “expression of students in classrooms and public forums that is protected by academic freedom or free speech principles.” Last but not least, the policy “shall not be used as the basis to discipline students, faculty, or staff,” since existing policies cover discipline.

So if the policy will (supposedly) not change anything in regard to academic freedom and freedom of speech, and it can’t be used as a basis for disciplining students or faulty, then what exactly is the point? I’m not sure (if I get or find an answer, I’ll update), but if it is approved, “university leaders” will be expected to “take all appropriate steps to implement the principles.”

UPDATE: After this article was published, I received the following statement from Dianne Klein, Media Relations Director for the University of California Office of the President.

Klein stressed that the policy was still a draft, and that criticism at this point in the process is premature:

What you saw on the regents agenda is a draft. It is up for discussion, which I imagine will be robust. You should tune in. The campuses have in place practices, policies, procedures and standards to address conduct and accountability. Any statement from the Board of Regents provides an overarching framework and a lens through which individual incidents can be examined and decisions made. A statement, when final, provides a basis for implementation, but implementation itself is the responsibility of university leadership in keeping with our goals of achieving tolerant, inclusive campus environments.

So I say all this to stress that litigating any aspect of a draft, before it has been considered by the Board of Regents and all the many people who will want their voices heard, is premature and not productive.

END UPDATE

The statement then provides a “non-exhaustive list” of things that do not “reflect the University’s values of inclusion and tolerance.” My favorite example:

  • Vandalism and graffiti reflecting culturally recognized symbols of hate or prejudice. These include depictions of swastikas, nooses, and other symbols intended to intimidate, threaten, mock and/or harass individuals or groups.

I always thought the Regents of the University of California were in favor of swastika-based vandalism and graffiti. I’m glad they finally cleared that up.

Another fun example:

  • Depicting or articulating a view of people with disabilities (both visible and invisible) as incapable.

Incapable of what? Some people with disabilities are incapable of walking. Did I just break the rule?

The list goes on:

  • Questioning a student’s fitness for a leadership role or whether the student should be a member of the campus community on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, citizenship, sex, or sexual orientation.

  • Depicting or articulating a view of ethnic or racial groups as less ambitious, less hardworking or talented, or more threatening than other groups.

These two examples might, at least on the surface, seem well intentioned. But as Volokh points out, “certainly the examples given [aside from the vandalism/graffiti]… are ‘free speech’ under any existing legal definition of free speech.” In other words, while the policy pays lip service to protecting free speech, “the authors of the proposal have a much narrower view of 'free speech’ in mind.”

Articulating a view that there are cultural (or even biological) differences between ethnic and racial groups in various fields — condemned by the authority of the University, without regard to the arguments for or against the particular assertion. It’s just an up-front categorical rule; whatever you want to say along these lines, we don’t want to hear it, we don’t care what your arguments are, we’ll condemn it, and faculty and students have a right not to hear it. Even “depicting” such a view, whatever that means, is “intolerant” and “has no place at the University.”

Saying that illegal aliens (or noncitizens who are legally here) ought not be appointed to be, say, the student member of the Board of Regents — likewise condemned.

And these are just examples. The policy obviously extends to the other categories traditionally joined to race, ethnicity, and disability, such as sex, sexual orientation, or religion.

Defending traditional exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage… discussing purported differences in temperament, cognition, and more between men and women… criticizing certain religious denominations… presumably all that… is likewise “intolerance” that “has no place at the University of California.

Volokh goes on to explain how the proposed policy could have a stifling effect on academic discourse despite the statement’s claims to the contrary.

“Now I’m a tenured faculty member, and I’ll keep on expressing my views despite this sort of policy,” Volokh said. “When these students and [nontenured] faculty members are told that certain views about disabilities, about race or ethnicity, or (by obvious extension) about sexual orientation, sex, or religion have “no place at the University” — and violate others’ rights to be “free from” such “expressions” — will they feel free to openly discuss these topics? Or will they realize that they had best follow the orthodoxy?”

To read Volokh’s entire piece, click here.

Via the Washington Post

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