Political correctness on campus

By Legal Eagle

Via a friend, I came across this interesting piece on political correctness on US university campuses. The author starts out with a salutary tale:

In 2007 a student working his way through college was found guilty of racial harassment for reading a book in public. Some of his co-workers had been offended by the book’s cover, which included pictures of men in white robes and peaked hoods along with the tome’s title, Notre Dame vs. the Klan. The student desperately explained that it was an ordinary history book, not a racist tract, and that it in fact celebrated the defeat of the Klan in a 1924 street fight. Nonetheless, the school, without even bothering to hold a hearing, found the student guilty of “openly reading [a] book related to a historically and racially abhorrent subject.”

The thesis of the author is that political correctness on university campuses is still alive and well, despite the fact that campus speech codes have been defeated in every legal challenge brought against them between 1989 and 1995.

Apparently some US universities have “free speech zones” where students can freely speak their minds. Other universities have codes which prevent speech which is hurtful, embarrassing or disrespectful.

Students who support gun use have been prevented from speaking at some universities. Now, I do not support gun use or concealed carry or anything of the like. Emphatically not. However, I would not prevent a person from speaking who did support these matters. The fact of the matter is that there are usually positives and negatives to every position (yes, it’s that pesky lawyer looking at both sides of the story again). For my part, I tend to think the negatives of allowing unrestrained gun use outweigh the positives by far, but that doesn’t entitle me to stop others from expressing an opposing view.

Complaining about “political correctness” is typically seen as a right-wing past time, but Lukianoff cautions against this stereotyping:

Because America’s universities tend to tilt left, and because many targets of P.C. censorship are socially conservative, campus censorship has too often come to be understood as a niche issue for the conservative media and blogosphere. This is a bizarre development, not only because free speech was once a central liberal cause but because liberals are by no means immune from campus censorship. Hindley, the Brandeis professor who was punished for his instructional use of wetback, is a liberal. Sampson, the student who read a book about the Klan, is an Obama voter, and some of the most vocal students opposing the Delaware residence program were liberals. This strange pigeonholing may explain why cases like that of Elizabeth Ito, who lost her job at Forsyth Technical Community College in North Carolina after criticizing the war in Iraq, or the students at the University of Texas who last year were threatened with expulsion for having an Obama poster in their window, struggled to find a receptive audience in the media.

The perception that free speech on campus is primarily a conservative issue ultimately enables campus censors. Free speech zones, for example, are often tiny, out-of-the-way areas where some campuses quarantine protest activities. Obtaining permission to use even these limited spaces often involves waiting periods and registration requirements. In my experience the zones disproportionately affect left-wing protests. In November, for example, three professors were banned from campus at Southwestern College in California after they supported students whose protest against budget cuts took place outside—I am not making this up—the “free speech patio.” Nevertheless, the conservative website CampusReform.org has listed a free speech zone as a “leftist” campus abuse. While the site commendably wants to bring attention to these speech cages, such labeling helps campus bureaucrats brush off criticism as the hobbyhorse of a disfavored political minority, rather than an expression of concern over policies that affect all students.

The reason for P.C. censorship often has nothing to do with left or right. Sensitivity is often a cynical excuse to squelch speech that administrators don’t like for purely self-interested reasons. In late 2002, for example, the administration at Harvard Business School threatened a student newspaper editor because he ran a cartoon mocking the I.T. department for the failure of its computer system during interview week. The dean claimed the cartoon violated “community standards” because it was not “respectful discourse,” but ultimately the rationale was one that FIRE frequently sees from campus administrators: I believe in free speech and all, but I draw the line at making fun of me.

Hayden Barnes was expelled from Valdosta State University in Georgia in 2007 for posting a collage on Facebook that critiqued a planned parking garage because of its effect on the environment. The school’s rationale? Barnes, a decorated paramedic, posed a “clear and present danger” because the collage was labeled the “Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage.” Ronald Zaccari was the president of the college; the collage’s title was a joking reference to the president’s assertion that the garage would be part of his “legacy.” The school clearly did not seriously believe that Barnes was the next Virginia Tech gunman, as the expulsion note was simply slipped under his door along with a copy of the collage.

Bans on free speech are not just a beat up by “right-wingers” or a “leftist conspiracy” against people who don’t agree with them.

Personally, I don’t like to discuss issues in ways that might hurt or offend people. But sometimes, it’s unavoidable. Sometimes people are particularly thin-skinned, or take your point in the wrong way. Sometimes you have to raise unpalatable truths to discuss an issue fully.  Sometimes you have to challenge the way people think by shocking them.

Sometimes you just can’t help offending people by the very nature of your opinion. For example, if an atheist tells a very religious person very forcefully that he does not believe in God and tries to say exactly why he does not believe, the very religious person may get upset. Conversely, if the very religious person starts to try and convert the atheist and tries to say exactly why she does believe, the atheist may get upset. Mind you, I’ve had interesting discussions with people with all kinds of beliefs where they haven’t been offended by my views nor I by theirs, but I can see situations where people could be offended.

As I’ve just discussed in my recent post on law and regulating society, sometimes it’s hard to work out how to make people behave properly. If a student racially abuses another student, I can see why one would want to prevent such conduct from occurring if possible. I can understand the impulse to regulate against it, but as I also discussed in the post in regulation, I think that sometimes regulation can backfire. The law is a blunt instrument, and it’s difficult to specify exactly what conduct you want to prevent without going too far. Your original aim might be to stop racists or gun lobbyists or whoever, but you also give the regulator the capacity to silence a whole range of other people because of the vague and broad way these codes are written. You might even silence yourself.

For example, the code at one university mentioned in the article tries to regulate and prevent students from making “[e]mbarrassing, degrading or damaging information, assumptions, implications, remarks.” What is an embarrassing remark? Does it cover telling someone they have a piece of spinach between their teeth? (Seriously, does it?) What if someone assumes you’ve said something degrading but you certainly didn’t mean to?

The law isn’t the best instrument for regulating embarrassing or derogatory comments, anyway. Simple manners would do it. I wrote a post a year and a half ago about the decline of manners in society. As I said then, I think the important aspect of “good manners” are those informal rules which involve respecting other people as human beings. By being polite, you are essentially saying, “Yes, your personhood, comfort and needs are important to me, and I respect them. I recognise that you are a person of equal worth to myself.” Manners are also about not being selfish and purely wrapped up in one’s own needs. A polite person would try not to say something rude or derogatory, or if she was told she did say something which hurt someone’s feelings, she’d apologise. But good manners are something which are more appropriately inculcated into us by our parents than by the law.

Ultimately, it’s important that students have the freedom to question the status quo. It’s important that students be able to read a book about the Ku Klux Klan without being accused of being racist. Unfortunately, I don’t think it is possible to regulate away offence, either.

But it is possible to have polite and respectful discourse and still disagree with one another. Indeed, I hope that this blog is an exemplar in that regard. It is this attitude that should be promoted in universities.


Sometimes I’m amazed at my capacity to capture the zeitgeist (if I do say so myself). Via The Australian, I learn that the Brumby government in my home State of Victoria is instituting a “respect agenda” (borrowed wholesale from Tony Blair’s policies).

Read my lips: you can’t force people to respect one another.

Such an initiative is a typical instance of a government instituting a policy just so it can be seen to be doing something. I suspect this is in part a response to the recent deplorable incidents of violence against Indian students, but “respect ambassadors” aren’t going to stop the violence happening, particularly in the short term. Greater police presence on the street, and doing something about the thugs who perpetrate the violence might help, on the other hand.


  1. Posted January 21, 2010 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

    I can think of a “[e]mbarrassing, degrading or damaging information”, very damaging actually, remark staff (not students) could make, in a single letter: “F”

  2. Posted January 22, 2010 at 1:16 am | Permalink

    Freedom of speech and freedom of ownership are different types of freedom now?

  3. Posted January 22, 2010 at 1:52 am | Permalink

    Word, Dave.

  4. Posted January 22, 2010 at 4:20 am | Permalink

    If law (at whatever level) seeks to protect people from being offended, then that creates an incentive to be easily offended, since the more you are offended by, and the more intensely you are offended, the more you can control what others do.

    This is an aspect of “hate speech” laws (which these university codes are just another manifestation of) that is not enough remarked on. Not only are they an offense against free speech, they create perverse incentives. They also, as the Reason essay points out, inculcate a dangerous antipathy to freedom of speech.

    Indeed, this is a classic example of how government (in the broad sense, including campus government) intervention turns something into a controlled resource to be fought over.

    In the wider society, hate speech laws are patently unevenly applied. First, “hate speech” engaged in by whoever is dominant in the relevant milieus does not get prosecuted (or even labeled) as such. Second, “hate speech” which is “too hard” does not get prosecuted at all. Everyone knows that Victorian and British “hate speech” laws are broken every Friday in mosques and that none of those cases will be prosecuted.

    The common law offense of incitement does what needs to be done. The rest is noxious.

  5. Patrick
    Posted January 22, 2010 at 6:13 am | Permalink

    And that is why we must never have a charter of rights, because it will be full of such shit.

    If we could have a real, 18th century bill of rights, amen to that. But this modern touchy-feely charter drivel sucks, including for the reasons that this post and Lorenzo’s comment highlights.

    We in Australia, without as powerful a protection for the freedom of speech as America, should be especially leery.

  6. John H.
    Posted January 22, 2010 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    In the wider society, hate speech laws are patently unevenly applied.

    Damn right. Take for example a new festival game in Britain: bash a banker. Dolls resembling bankers pop up and you have to bash them with a mallet. Now if those dolls were representative of negros … etc. imagine the hue and cry.

    Or this

  7. Posted January 23, 2010 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    Apparently some US universities have “free speech zones” where students can freely speak their minds.
    And here I thought the US was one big free speech zone. Silly me. How is this legal? Especially the lack of any due process. If there’s no examination of the ‘offensive’ book how can they deem in a modern society that it’s indeed offensive?
    I think the important aspect of “good manners” are those informal rules which involve respecting other people as human beings.
    In other words sometimes the right course is ethical not political. I reckon if you try and solve problems best addressed interpersonally with regulation you can precipitate resentment and actually make people feel the exact opposite.
    Like evangelical vegetarians whose self-righteousness fills one with the urge to munch sliced baby panda.
    Mmm sliced baby panda. 🙂

  8. Posted January 23, 2010 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    Dolls resembling bankers pop up and you have to bash them with a mallet.
    Outrageous. Molesting an innocent doll when there are so many real live bankers available. 🙂

  9. Posted January 23, 2010 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    And for the main course some basted Californian Condor stuffed with minced Siberian Tiger and a side serving of baby seal.

  10. Posted January 23, 2010 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    I’m sorry. Is it possible to move Comment #10 where it belongs?

  11. Posted January 23, 2010 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    Alas no, Adrien — I just checked. It’s the one piece of admin magic that seems to be beyond us. If you repeat it on the Japanese ghosts post I’ll amend this thread accordingly so it goes back on topic.

  12. Posted January 23, 2010 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    Okay, I say we now leave this thread as a monument to my technical uselessness…

  13. Posted January 23, 2010 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    I am trying to find ways to express how really, really stupid this ‘respect agenda’ nonsense is. So let me just point out what should be the bleeding obvious.

    When the BNP gets its first EuroMPs and County Councillors, the trend is not good. Blair has respect agenda, gets BNP surge. Keating has something similar, gets One Nation surge. If people are not allowed to discuss their concerns legitimately (because it does not show “respect”) then they will do so illegitimately.

    Moreover, how does one do this sort of thing and not talk down to people? And how does that show “respect’?

  14. Posted January 23, 2010 at 9:39 am | Permalink


  15. Peter Patton
    Posted January 23, 2010 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    I am glad this issue has been raised. Despite the sarcastic disavowals that “political correctness” is a fabrication by loathsome right-wing apologists for racism, misogyny (whatever happened to the good old days of ‘sexism’), ableism, homophobia, it is more out of control than all but a few appreciate.

    Check out these policies from Sydney’s, University of Technology that apply to all Staff, Student, and even visitors.

    Reading all this incredible amount of regulation, not only are you struck by just how many people must be devoted to this project, but you really have to ask why they bother having a ‘Humanities’ faculty at all, and how any sincere and intelligent discourse could possible take place at UTS.

    It would be very interesting to see how some test cases challenging this intellectual oppression would fare.

    On Language, Sex, and Gender (and no it does not refer to the Kama Sutra!


    on Language, Race, and Ethnicity


    on Language and Disability


  16. conrad
    Posted January 23, 2010 at 2:57 pm | Permalink


    my bet is that part of the reason that UTS has all this stuff up is for legal reasons — basically, if one of their employees (s/he 🙂 ) says something that they might get sued for, then I imagine they could try and use this so the employee would get sued rather than the university. This is the main reason for equal opportunity workshops that companies give — it’s not because the management actually care, it’s because they’re obliged to for legal reasons.

  17. Posted January 23, 2010 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    Following Conrad’s comment, does that mean we created the tort of “being offended”? Or, even worse, the just-in-case tort of “somewhat might be offended”?

  18. Posted January 23, 2010 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    I am guessing it is still fine to say all businesspersons are parasitical exploiters of the workers, or Howard’s NT intervention was racism in operation, or …

    But I am just repeating my point that all “hate speech” is never equal in these things.

  19. Posted January 23, 2010 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    That should have been “someone might be offended” btw.

  20. Peter Patton
    Posted January 23, 2010 at 3:34 pm | Permalink


    If you read those documents, your interpretation is not possible, as they are overwhelmingly focused on students, including many specific examples of how students should incorporate these diktates into not only their written work, but communications within class, and even at the uni bar.

    It is an unabashed attempt at thought and speech control. UTS is quite notorious as an institution heavily invested in all this. I know of no Australian laws that would require anything like this as mere ass-covering.

  21. Peter Patton
    Posted January 23, 2010 at 3:42 pm | Permalink


    A sophisticated student could really put the cat among the pigeons, couldn’t they? 🙂 But I have no doubt they would be prepared for this, by having other university policies and regulations that defines “racism” and so on that would explicitly exclude the sorts of examples you gave. That’s why I was suggesting some test cases.

  22. Posted January 23, 2010 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    Peter & Conrad: I suspect both things are going on. That is, we’ve got a university dancing around the potential problems raised by vicarious liability and a doctrinaire attempt to prevent people from being offended, which as Lorenzo suggests, raises interesting and rather unpleasant tort-y possibilities…

  23. su
    Posted January 23, 2010 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    I am a little confused by your comment at 15 Lorenzo. If your chronology is accurate then shouldn’t the conclusion be that when personal hate speech is restricted or threatened, then people may seek to legitimize that hate speech by respectable means such as through party political representation? Neither the BNP nor One Nation were ‘illegitimate means’, it seems to me.

  24. Posted January 23, 2010 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    The BNP has considerable links to violent groups (Combat 18 etc); its current leader (following the British political boilerplate) is Oxbridge, and is doing his best to sever all those links, with mixed success. It is also difficult to know if he is sincere. Time will tell.

    One Nation was a wholly legitimate political party, as much as it annoyed people at the time. It’s the example I often give people in the UK as to how prejudice should be handled — through the parliament. Sometimes that may mean mainstream political parties stealing some of the minor party’s policies (as happened in Australia); at the very least it involves listening to people’s complaints and taking them seriously.

    There is, for example, a serious economic argument against the admission of too many low-skill immigrants and refugees (they create serious downward pressure on wages, which then manifests as racism among the poor). I don’t accept all those arguments, or I think they are counterbalanced by other net positives from immigration, but the people who say of immigrants ‘they’re taking our jobs’ are not as stupid as they appear.

    The really important research in this area was undertaken by Harvard economist George Borjas.

  25. conrad
    Posted January 24, 2010 at 4:21 am | Permalink


    Now I think about it, I imagine those notices are for administrative purposes against students also. If you need to kick someone out for some reason or other and don’t want to wait until they fail three times (or more), you need evidence, and no doubt being able to claim sexist behavior (etc.) is one of them. The same would be true for cases of harassment on campus. You always need some reason to claim that the university has taken all reasonable precautions and hence it is the fault of the individual. It’s basically the same reason there are stupid warning signs everyone now (these don’t exist in many countries) — it’s obviously very easy to claim things are not your fault due to ignorance in Australia compared to other countries.

  26. conrad
    Posted January 24, 2010 at 4:27 am | Permalink

    Looking at Lorenzo’s and SL’s comments, it would be interesting to know of any cases where things like this have been brought against universities and people have denied being guilty due to ignorance. You could certainly rephrase “being offended” into bullying, so it should be possible.

  27. Posted January 24, 2010 at 4:27 am | Permalink

    SU, I was using ‘legitimate’ in the sense of ‘accepted’ rather than in the sense of ‘legal part of the political process’. Perhaps not a good usage on a lawyer’s blog!

    A better way to put my point would be ‘if they cannot do so within the political mainstream, they will do so outside it’.

  28. Posted January 24, 2010 at 4:33 am | Permalink

    On which point, I see Schools Secretary Ed Balls is doing his bit to maximise the BNP vote. What is so hard about the same set of rules for everyone?

  29. Posted January 24, 2010 at 4:34 am | Permalink

    The link does not seem to have worked: it is here:

  30. Posted January 24, 2010 at 5:07 am | Permalink

    It seems to have eaten your first link, Lorenzo — I just checked under the hood. The second link works fine, however.

  31. conrad
    Posted January 25, 2010 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    The other thing I find really weird thing about that link is the arbitrary 12.5 hour rule. Surely, whether you happen to ban or allow teachers to hit kids should have nothing to do with how often they see them. It will be interesting to see whether that leads to court cases down the line.

  32. Peter Patton
    Posted January 25, 2010 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Right on cue, the six-figure salaried ‘Offensive Police’ have taken to the media to tell us all that they are, well, offended.


  33. Patrick
    Posted January 25, 2010 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    For that alone (generally not the specific example) I had no doubt that I was going to vote for Abbot, right from the start.

    There’s a couple of dozen other reasons but that one alone is almost sufficient.

  34. Posted January 26, 2010 at 12:08 am | Permalink

    LE: Yes, wrong and stupid, such a lovely combination.

    PP & P: It is amazing: by attacking Abbott they are making his point. And will be seen by lots of voters to be making his point. Howard, for example, ran the least Eurocentric immigration policy in Australian history, a relatively high immigration policy, but was somehow “pandering to racism”. It turns “racism” into “disagreeing with us on a totemic issue”. To adapt an American joke: what’s a racist? Someone who is winning an argument with a progressive.

  35. Peter Patton
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 8:54 am | Permalink


    The great advantage Howard had over Keating was that Howard was never/is not a misanthropic snob like Keating. So Howard had much more ground intelligence about what was really happening across the electorate. The whole of Australia was aware of the burgeoning multi-ethnic melting point Australia had become. And most them – yes even the non-Anglo ones were very hard on boat people, particularly Muslim boat people who were not following the procedures – getting in the queue – everybody else considered they had followed.

    So when all these white middle class people who read The Age like The Bible start jumping up and down about how racist Australians are, the rest of the country looks around their suburb, their shopping centre, their place of work, their customers, their clients, their deli workers, their buses, their trains, their spouses, their in-laws, their school playgrounds, their university lecture halls, their doctors, and says “WTF are you talking about”.

    When their Prime Minister (Keating) started to run with it, the country just said “sorry mate, you’re too ignorant for the job, and you’re insulting us, go away”. I think Rudd, Gillard, and the team got this message very loudly and very clearly during their time in opposition. 😉

  36. Posted January 26, 2010 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    PP: Splendidly put 🙂

  37. Posted January 27, 2010 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    At a time when people can get so easily and self-righteously offended, and when ever-more specific offences are encoded into law, perhaps what we need is not so much good manners, but bad manners. P J O’Rourke who is often amazingly (and deceptively) boorish is the comic writer who has most successfully managed to defy the left-wing easy-offence zeitgeist in America*.

    *Not sure if that last sentence makes sense, but I’ll write it anyway.

  38. John H.
    Posted January 27, 2010 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    At a time when people can get so easily and self-righteously offended, and when ever-more specific offences are encoded into law, perhaps what we need is not so much good manners, but bad manners. P J O’Rourke who is often amazingly (and deceptively) boorish is the comic writer who has most successfully managed to defy the left-wing easy-offence zeitgeist in America*.

    O’Rourke gave a great speech at the National Press Club some months ago. He is equally adept at attacking the Right as he is the Left. Unfortunately this very important lesson is lost on some of his admirers.

  39. Posted January 27, 2010 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, but O’Rourke was and remains a Republican by his own admission. And there’s no doubt that the main target for his satire are the left-wing liberals in his own country.

  40. Bill of Rights
    Posted May 18, 2010 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Agree strongly with your view that the better approach would be tronger police presence. My local Cenotaph was vandalised and strwn with rubbish and faeces the night before ANZAC day. The police do not see the need to put a patrol on or even investigate by examing the CCTV. The Local Council does not see the need to employ a private security guard to prevent the desecration of the site before a day that has great significance to many Australians.

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