Friday, April 25, 2008

Kampus komedy

An anonymous commenter below suggests that if I am going to complain about the Patriot Act, then I also should raise concerns about violations of civil liberties on college campuses. I'm not sure I see what connects the two, but OK, I'm game.

The problem is that I haven't had much experience with the sort of problems he talks about. I've taught or studied, or both, at nine colleges, give or take a couple, and I have never encountered punitive speech codes or guest lecturers shouted down. I'm not saying it doesn't happen, and I'm not saying my experience is either broad or deep enough to be representative of the whole. But I see enough problems on campus -- students balancing multiple jobs, funding concerns, the general decline in literacy -- that I don't spend much time fretting about problems I don't see.

And I seek problems out, within my limited capacity to do so. Whenever there is an orientation session on academic freedom, or campus attitudes, or sexual harassment, I try to go. Sorry, nothing thrilling to report. Am I just kowtowing to my employer? Here's evidence that I don't do that.

Even if I did see problems, I'm not sure they would rise to the level that concerns the commenter. I think Ann Coulter is an odious human being, and I don't see why any college would consider that she has anything of value to say to students. Nor do I think she is in a great position to complain about the response she generates. Once she decided to build a career by calling everyone who disagrees with her a traitor and an enemy of God, her claim on receiving a respectful public hearing attenuated.

Still, people shouldn't be assaulted for things they say, and once the error of inviting her has been made, she certainly should be allowed to speak. Colleges that fail in their obligation to provide a reasonably safe venue where she can be heard deserve to be excoriated, but given the nature of college life, it isn't surprising that they sometimes fail at the job. How occasional lapses in crowd control at selected colleges add up to a civil liberties threat equal to the threat posed by a federal law isn't clear to me. Perhaps I need enlightenment.

As for speech codes, there have, without question, been egregious cases, and they do concern me, especially when they take place on publicly owned campuses. But colleges have struggled for years to define their role as both bastions of intellectual inquiry and as safe harbors where students can explore new ideas without getting beat up too much. When a mother threatens to punish a child who insults the neighbor kids, no one reads that as a threat to the First Amendment. Matters quickly get more complicated when a school, acting in loco parentis, attempts the same thing. Weblogs such as The Volokh Conspiracy often deal with the accompanying legal issues (such as this University of Montana case) with far more expertise than I could. I leave them the field.

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