Rutgers posts, edits, bias prevention guide telling students “There’s no such thing as ‘free’ speech”

The school year has started, which means we’re in for another round of the campus speech wars.

There are two fronts to this war. The first front concerns interactions between students and their schools’ faculties and administrations. Professors are terrified of poor evaluations or, worse, formal complaints from coddled, easily offended students who can’t handle books that violate their beliefs and identities. Students, in turn, have to fight for their right to be taken seriously by the administration over claims of discrimination and, more often than we’d like to think about, sexual assault.

The second front concerns interactions between students, with the administration in the background. Perhaps informed by the battles waged on the first front of the speech wars, administrations set rules and norms governing intra-campus dialogue in an attempt to cover themselves legally in the event that one or more students finds that they have been discriminated against by their peers.

The trouble with this second front is that administrations inevitably wind up codifying speech norms that students should otherwise be able to work out for themselves. In an attempt to tell lawyers of parents of students that “See! We’re creating safe spaces! You can’t sue us!” schools rankle libertarian ideals of free and open speech. And while normally these formalities are are benign, and go unnoticed, every year enough schools go far enough to give conservatives new ammunition in the campus speech wars, guaranteeing that they live to fight another year.

College classroom via Shutterstock

Student, via Shutterstock

There are two culprits thus far this year. First, The University of New Hampshire, which posted a bias-free language guide over the summer in which practically every adjective used to describe a human being is problematic. Second, last week, Rutgers University’s Bias Prevention and Education Committee posted a guide for students to avoid having “bias incidents,” listing five things students should do in order to avoid being problematic on campus.

If you click through to the guide, you’ll notice that the first header listed in the guide is to “Think Before you Speak,” but there is no subheader. That’s because the original version of the guide (cached page here) reminded students that “There’s no such thing as ‘free’ speech. All speech has a cost and consequences.”

Look, I get what they meant. Your speech affects others, and you should be mindful of what you say so as to make sure you’re treating everyone with respect. But disrespectful speech is still free speech. You have a right to offend, and the people you offend have a right to be offended. And to the extent that conservatives are worried about the conflation of protected disrespectful speech and unprotected hate speech, lines like “There’s no such thing as ‘free’ speech,” only serve as proof that their concerns are justified.

After all, “All speech has cost and consequences” is the justification for the continued advocacy for anti-blasphemy laws at the United Nations. These laws would entail (non-binding, because it’s the UN) bans on criticism of religious figures and ideas, including but not necessarily limited to the Prophet Muhammad.

As soon as you say, “Yeah, free speech is great, but…” you’ve undermined the concept. When you say “There’s no such thing as ‘free’ speech,” you’ve disregarded the concept entirely.

That isn’t what pluralism is about, to say nothing of college. And I’m sure if we asked whoever wrote and then deleted that line in Rutgers’ guide to avoid bias incidents, they’d agree. So let’s stop proving Reason Magazine’s points for them, shall we?


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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21 Responses to “Rutgers posts, edits, bias prevention guide telling students “There’s no such thing as ‘free’ speech””

  1. Houndentenor says:

    We got the point just fine.

  2. frankelee says:

    Sad to see the point of the article fly over the heads’ of liberal readers.

  3. emjayay says:

    The link for the UNH guide only goes to a page about diversity. It seems like they pulled the guide several weeks ago after a lot of negative publicity, ruining all the fun. I couldn’t find the actual thing online.

  4. emjayay says:

    I know what an Asian actor portraying a student for a photo shoot looks like. Sometimes a picture equals minus a thousand words, like every time Americablog uses a Shutterstock photo.

  5. Baal says:

    Yes, the use of the PC is one of the most obvious wingnut identifiers. It is right up there with “Kenyan”, “socialist”, “libtard”, and dare I say it, “sieg heil!”

  6. Baal says:

    Rutgers actually did change the guide. I’m not sure they should have, because speech is politically free but is not without consequences. You can get fired for things you write on social media. And that is ok with me. Students need to be reminded of this. I for one don’t give a rat’s ass if wingnuts get their panties in a wringer over what was in that guide.

    You are right, though, the University of New Hampshire thing was embarrassing. The one that really got me was that if I use the term “futbol” to refer to soccer (and to distinguish that sport from, say, the NFL) I have committed a microagression against Latinos, which made me wonder if the words voila and deja vu were also forbidden to me because I am not French.

  7. White&Blue says:

    This reminds me of a post someone once wrote about freedom of speech and how people see it nowadays: “You’re free to express any opinions you want, as long as those opinions agree with mine.”

  8. MoonDragon says:

    Ages ago (in my teens, when dinosaurs ruled the earth) I read a short story by J. T. McIntosh about a man whose mind had been sent into the future who was communicating back with the friend who sent him, “You Were Right, Joe”. In this future world, there were only two laws:

    Law #1 – You mustn’t bother other people.

    Law #2 – If you are other people, you mustn’t be bothered too easily.

    I guess we aren’t there yet.

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  10. Hue-Man says:

    This is an American phenomenon. A Quebec Conservative candidate for the upcoming federal election withdrew after online comments were made public. His sins?

    ““To be fair, instead of speaking of superiority, it would be better to speak of the authority of men over women,” read a 2014 web comment by Gilles Guibord below a story in the Journal de Montreal.”

    “In others, Guibord questions Mohawk claims to Quebec, asserts that it is not a religious requirement for Sikhs to wear turbans and praises the Conservatives for attaining power with almost no representation in Quebec.” http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/canadian-politics/quebec-conservative-candidate-asked-to-resign-over-distasteful-online-comments

    The 2012 Alberta provincial election demonstrated that candidates’ “freedom of speech” can lose elections (one candidate made anti-Muslim comments, another referred to LGBT with a “lake of fire” reference). Intolerance is not a Canadian value.

  11. JaneE says:

    I was thinking of college campuses, where more than a few “debates” wound up in brawls. Point being that toning down the red-flag words did keep the violence down to verbal sparring, and deliberate provocation did in fact provoke people to violence. I just don’t agree than eliminating the use of certain words will keep the intimidation or harassment or insults from still happening. If someone wants to debase or anger someone else, they will find a way to do it, and I would rather see someone hurl a slur than a fist.

  12. Indigo says:

    It’s a national panic attack. I doubt people can say what the panic is about but my sense of it is the collapse of civility tempered with an endangered economy.

  13. nicho says:

    What’s gone out the window is civil discourse. When Faux News, Rush Limbaugh, GOP presidential candidates, and so-called religious leaders continuously spew what, not so many years ago, would be considered hate speech, how can you set standards for other people? The country has pretty much gone into the crapper. This coming election may be what finally pulls the chain.

  14. Indigo says:

    Thanks for the reminder. That’s the way it was.

  15. Houndentenor says:

    50 years ago where I live if you said the wrong thing the Klan would burn a cross in your front yard. 60 years ago writers were blacklisted for even the hint of communist leanings. I’m not sure the golden age of free speech in the US ever existed like people seem to think it did.

  16. Houndentenor says:

    It’s sad that it takes so many words to ask people not to be assholes. You can tell how big an asshole someone is by how much they complain about PC “rules”. Yes, some of them get silly. Too many people are just looking for something to be faux-upset about these days. That’s as much a problem on some (though not all…by a long-shot) campuses as the right wing douchebags who want to be able to say horrible things and never be criticized for them.

  17. Indigo says:

    Or made to memorize Strunk and White, Elements of Style, cover to cover and recite it in assembly once a semester until their graduation.

  18. 2karmanot says:

    Coddled helicopter students should be unjustly and severely punished by copying the whole of Swan’s Way backwards with crayons and then translated into Japanese.

  19. Indigo says:

    Neither “Free Speech” nor “Privacy Rights” survived into the 21st century in recognizable form. Those are practices that have left the building. Good, bad, or indifferent, the facts remain obvious: the way we’d like to understand them is under fire. I don’t understand why but a clear resolution of the gnats of triviality and intolerance surrounding what should be obvious isn’t surfacing.

    Boethius (c. 500 C.E.) wrote a remarkable essay “On the Consolation of Philosophy” in which, carefully worded to avoid giving offense, he lamented the passing of the Olympian gods and considered how best to accommodate the rhetoric of the Christians whom the Imperial System sponsored. It’s quite a discussion but I’m afraid the best Boethius was able to come up with amounts to what we would call Orwellian double-talk.

  20. JaneE says:

    Fifty years ago, free speech meant that you could say anything, no matter how rude and disgusting. Arguments were common, and frequently heated. If you didn’t want to come to blows, you toned it down. A lot of people didn’t, and needed to be restrained, or have the person they were arguing with restrained. People who could see that getting angry and starting fights didn’t do any convincing, started using “politically correct” language that wouldn’t enrage the people they were addressing.

    Instead of banning words, ban the usage. Any word can be made into a slur if it is said with enough disdain and contempt. And even the premier racial slur in the English language should be able to be cited as such in plaintext without condemnation. But that is not where we are today.

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