Darryl Paulson: Do universities discriminate? The assault on free speech


Most universities recruit students by offering specialized curricula, top quality faculty and promising to expose students to diverse views which will stimulate creative thinking and prepare the student for life after their university experience.

Universities may be partially successful on the first two items, but dramatically fail in exposing students to diverse viewpoints. It is hard to think of a more close-minded institution than the American university. Groupthink and ideological orthodoxy are the standard practices on campuses.

There are many professors, both liberals and conservatives, who excel at awakening students to new ideas and who maintain neutrality in expressing those views. Too many professors, dominated by the political left, push their political agenda as the correct approach to the exclusion of alternative viewpoints.

Alan Dershowitz, one of the leading liberal law professors in America, argues that the last thing university students want is diversity. Most students want universities to provide complete freedom and “safe places.” Few of them understand that those two concepts are mutually exclusive. Dershowitz observes that students want “free speech for me, not for thee.”

Grey Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in their article, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” contend that too many college students engage in “catastrophizing,” which is to say, they turn common events into nightmarish trials or claim that easily bearable events have become unbearable.

Students believe that speech that offends others should be punished. Who will judge what is offensive? Unpopular speech should be challenged, not censored.

At least 271 universities have established “speech codes” which impinge on the free speech rights of students and faculty. I taught Southern politics for 35 years. One segment of the course was on the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens Council, two extremist groups focused on suppressing blacks.

At one point, I told students that I was going to use the actual words of Klan leaders at some of their rallies. I thought this was important so that the students could see how extreme their views were. I used the term “nigger” several time because that was always how the Klan referred to blacks. I thought it was important for students to see the impact of speech. The Klan did not call them blacks, Negroes or African-Americans; it was always “nigger.”

Most students realized the impact of words, but on more than one occasion someone complained to the Dean that I was using an offensive term. Yes, I was, but I was simply quoting verbatim Klan comments and I believed the historical and political lesson justified its limited use in this class. I was asked on one occasion to not use the offensive term. I refused to do so.

In addition to speech codes, many universities have established safe spaces, trigger warnings and microaggressions to “warn and protect” students from offensive speech. This coddling of the student is, in my view, one of the most corrupting aspects of the modern university.

At the University of California, the expression that “America is a land of opportunity” and “everyone can succeed in society if they work hard enough” are microaggressions which may not be uttered. “America is a melting pot” is another common microaggression on campuses.

A Washington State University professor told students she would lower their grade if they used the term “illegal immigrant.” Another professor at the same university warned students in her “Women and Popular Culture” course that they risked failure if they referred to “women/men as males and females.” So much for free speech.

The University of Tennessee Office of Diversity, worried that students might be offended with gender-specific pronouns (he, she, him, her), and suggested substituting ze, hir, xem and xyr. Really, I didn’t make this up.

Not only is certain speech taboo on college campuses, but increasing numbers of students believe that it is the proper role of government to stop offensive speech. 40 percent of millennial (18-34-year-olds) told the Pew Research Center that “government should be able to prevent people from saying offensive statements about minority groups.”

Since when did not offending individuals supersede the First Amendment? On college campuses, it is usually conservative speech that students find offensive. Are not speech codes a means of stifling such speech?

The 1975 Woodward Report, named after Yale University’s pre-eminent historian C. Vann Woodward, noted that a university “cannot make its primary and dominant value the fostering of friendships, solidarity, harmony, civility or mutual respect … “

A special faculty committee of the University of Chicago argued that “debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought to be by some or even most of the university community to9 be offensive, unwise, immoral or wrongheaded.”

Frederick Douglass, the famous abolitionist, writer and statesmen, wrote that “to suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.”

Former University of Chicago president Robert M. Hutchins commented that “without a vibrant commitment to free and open inquiry, a university ceases to exist.”

Another former University of Chicago president, Hanna Holborn Gray, noted that the purpose of a university is not to make young adults feel comfortable, it is to make them think.”

How can we encourage young adults to think and examine different ideas, when so many of them are suppressed for fear of offending someone’s feelings?

Speech may offend certain individuals, but that does not mean it harms them. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Speech, even if offensive, is the spark that is often needed to light our intellectual fires. We cannot afford to let the flames die out as they have on so many university campuses.

Look for Part 3 of “Do universities discriminate” Wednesday, March 22. The focus will be on the assault on conservative speakers on campuses.


Darryl Paulson is Professor Emeritus of Government at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg.

Darryl Paulson

Darryl Paulson is Emeritus Professor of Government at USF St. Petersburg.


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