In early 2011, the Provost’s Office in Oregon State University was under fire following the way it was handling the invitation of a controversial public figure in the institution. The controversy revolved around Tristan Taormino, who according to Corvallis (1) is a “…..self- described feminist pornographer” (p. 1). This woman was invited to be the key note speaker in a conference that was taking place circa February 2011. The conference dubbed Modern Sex Conference was organized by the Campus Women’s Centre.
The controversial invitation and the even more controversial way in which the Provost’s office handled the whole situation brings to the fore the issue of freedom of speech in campus both in the United States of America and elsewhere in the world. There are those who argue that the American public colleges should uphold the so called codes of speech or free speech policy.
Others are of the view that speech codes employed by institutions of higher learning which are financed by the government are synonymous to what the American Civil Liberties’ Union [herein referred to as UCLA] (2) calls “government censorship” (2). Those who belong to this school of thought argue that the public universities should accommodate diverse opinions no matter how controversial they appear.
I totally agree with those who are against speech codes in public campuses. It is my opinion that the costs of curtailing free speech in campus far much outweighs the benefits accrued. This is given the various disadvantages of speech codes in these universities.
Controlling Free Speech in Public Campuses is More Costly that it is Beneficial
It is a fact beyond doubt that The First Amendment to the constitution of this country is very clear as far as free speech is concerned. According to UCLA (4), the amendment protects “(free) speech no matter how offensive the content” (4). This being the case, it is my opinion that those campuses controlling or censoring free speech under the guise of codes of speech are interfering with the constitutional rights of the students, lecturers and other stakeholders in the university.
You will agree with me that a university is one of the most important social institutions in the society. This being the case, I strongly believe that such an important social institution should be open to all opinions regardless of how unpopular they are. Hate speech codes do not in any way help the social institution in fulfilling this role.
According to Uelmen (7), codes of speech are seen as protecting the “politically correct” students from dissenting or unpopular opinions. This is contrary to one of the universities’ most important roles. I believe that such students will not be able to effectively react to unpopular opinions in the society after graduation.
I must point out at this juncture that I am not advocating for the total abolishment of codes of speech in public universities. What I am saying is that the codes of speech should be flexible enough to accommodate beneficial unpopular opinions while safeguarding the rights of the majority in the campus. For example, the university should not allow hate speech that leads to “….an intimidating, hostile or offensive educational environment” (Uelmen 6). This is for example forms of speech that are offensive to minority groups such as gays, lesbians and the disabled among others. This applies to free speech in public places in campus and free speech for students and instructors in the classroom.
I agree with some of the arguments cited by those who support speech codes in public universities. For example, I totally agree with them when they argue that hate speech directed at a member of the university from a minority group more than hurts their feelings (Beito, Johnson & Luker 4). Such form of hate speech may entrench discrimination and subjugation as far as minority groups are concerned.
However, I totally disagree with these proponents when they argue that speech codes in campus effectively address the “conflict between the right to freely speak and the right to an education” (Uelmen 9). How can one refer to the suppression of dissenting opinions as right to an education? Surely, education should also address these dissenting views.
The debate revolving around free speech in campus persists within the academic circles today. The divide between those who are for codes of speech in campus and those who are against the same continues to widen. I am not sure whether my arguments in this paper helped in bridging the gap or they just widened it.
I was expecting that the Provost’s Office at Oregon State University will resolve this issue once and for all. However, I was very disappointed when I learnt that the office refused to pay for Taormino’s travel and speaking fee arguing that she might promote hate speech in campus.
The office disapproves the views expressed by this woman arguing that her presence in campus may be more costly than it is beneficial. However, it is my opinion that the decision by the Provost’s Office was a violation of academic freedom and the constitutional rights of both the students and Taormino. I am sure you will agree with me that this is more costly than it is beneficial.
American Civil Liberties’ Union. Hate Speech on Campus. 31 December 2011. 10 February 2012 < http://www.aclu.org/free-speech/hate-speech-campus >.
Beito, David, Johnson, Robert & Luker, Ralph. Who’s Undermining Freedom of Speech on Campus Now? 11 April 2005. 10 February 2012
Corvallis, Gazette. Speaker Barred from Modern Sex Conference for Speaking about Sex. 01 February 2011. 10 February 2012
Uelmen, Gerald. The Price of Free Speech: Campus Hate Speech Codes. 29 December 2005. 10 February 2012