When I last took the temperature of free speech in America about a year ago, the nation was running a slight fever.
A year ago, there was discussion about — and some support for — the University of Chicago’s January 2015 statement on behalf of intellectual liberty on campus. The nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) had noted a slight decline in the number of colleges and universities earning “red light” ratings because of speech codes or other restrictions on what students may think, say, write and do.
On the other hand, we were already well into the 2016 presidential campaign, during which partisans on all sides would plumb previously unexplored rhetorical depths. Many a hyperventilating columnist would come dangerously close to wearing out the H, I, T, L, E and R keys on their laptop.
The news reached such heights of erudition that I canceled cable.
A year later, as the nation heads for a close encounter of the Trump kind, it’s time for our annual free speech checkup. The news is not great.
Sure, FIRE’s annual report, released Dec. 12, shows a decline in the number of colleges and universities with “red light” ratings. The report notes “39.6 percent of surveyed institutions maintain severely restrictive, red light speech codes — a nearly 10 percentage point drop from last year’s 49.3 percent.”
This means that more than one-third of the schools FIRE surveyed do not take the First Amendment seriously.
In Central Massachusetts, Clark University, the College of the Holy Cross and Framingham State University earn “red light” ratings from FIRE. Worcester State University earns a “yellow light,” while Worcester Polytechnic Institute gets a “blue light,” FIRE’s way of cautioning that it cannot guarantee free speech is protected there.
Clark’s policy is typical. The Student Handbook’s section on bias — start on page 20 after clicking the link or scrolling below — reads in part: “Examples of bias incidents, include but are not limited to: telling jokes based on a stereotype, name-calling, stereotyping, posting or commenting on social media related to someone’s identity in a bias matter, and altering or removing any faith-based symbol.”
The problem of free speech goes beyond academia, but I focus on colleges and universities because those institutions offer formative experiences for our youth, and play an outsized role in setting the tenor of discussions in our nation.
I grew up before speech codes and political correctness, when hurtful speech was either simply ignored, or settled with further words or, rarely, with fists. Either way, the problem was usually solved and the parties wound up understanding each other better. It rarely occurred to anyone to sue, or pull out a handbook to cite supposed violations of supposed rights.
I attended college during the rise of political correctness, but campuses in the 1980s were still mostly free of the restrictions so popular with collegiate administrators today.
While our society has certainly grown more tolerant and enlightened regarding sexuality, gender identity, race, religion, mental health and much else, it is important to remember that law reflects reality far more than it shapes reality. In the context of free speech, this means simply that we can never outlaw crassness, stupidity or ignorance. We can only seek to overcome them through dialogue and reason.
Our American liberties are broadly drawn because the Founders understood that human beings are complex, diverse and imperfect. Were they around today, the Founders would remind us that attempts to achieve the impossible usually end badly, by reducing the scope of freedom and moral action that humans require if they are to call themselves human.
And precisely because of the fierce debates behind us — and those likely in the near future — we need more freedom and more free speech, not less.
We need to worry more about truth, honesty, understanding, and the quality of our dialogues, not about whether in shaping our arguments we might commit “microaggressions” or “traumatize” someone because we run afoul of some arbitrary restriction on human expression or fall short of some impossible-to-meet standard.
The First Amendment is the best and surest path to a more civil society. If they would become better and freer institutions, Clark, Holy Cross, WPI and others must embrace the often unruly freedoms the First Amendment unleashes.
That will require administrators with more courage, faculty with broader perspective, students with thicker skin, and handbooks free of speech codes.
Until FIRE gives it a green light, you can be sure that any given school is falling short of the highest ideals of liberal education.
Chris Sinacola is a Worcester Sun columnist. His observations on politics, current events, history and more appear every Sunday.