RALEIGH — Homosexual activists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are circulating a petition to stop “a perversion of anti-discrimination codes.” The perversion? Such codes might actually be used to protect a “white, heterosexual, [C]hristian male,” too. Egad!
“Existing anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies based on race, gender, and sexual orientation,” write the activists in announcing their petition, “are meant to protect those who are historically marginalized.” To them, marginalizing someone now doesn’t count unless the victim is also a member of the “historically marginalized” class.
At issue behind the petition is the ongoing Office of Civil Rights investigation into instructor Elyse Crystall’s English class, sparked by her classwide email. Crystall branded a student by name for his “violence” and “hate speech” in class after he responded to Crystall’s discussion topic of “Why do heterosexual men feel threatened by homosexuals” by recounting a story of his friend who received a love letter from a gay man and felt disgusted and dirty, and by saying as a Christian he wouldn’t want to have to explain to his son at a baseball game why two men were kissing. Crystall wrote that he “has created a hostile environment” and is “a perfect example” of “a white, heterosexual, [C]hristian male” feeling “entitled to make violent, heterosexist comments and not feel marked or threatened or vulnerable.”
For those of you keeping score, the student isn’t among the “historically marginalized,” as Crystall made crystal clear by delineating his race, sexual orientation, creed and gender when she named him. But the unnamed homosexual in the student’s example is. So according to the activists, Crystall acted properly in excoriating the student for violent hate speech.
In the petition, the activists first “affirm our commitment to the cultivation of an academic environment at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that is both safe for and inclusive of all students and is principled on the concept of academic freedom.” The rest is reserved for disaffirming it.
The activists state that they “feel” the OCR investigation is “unnecessary for several reasons.” First, “it has the potential to harm this academic environment by creating a chilling effect on professors who take steps to make their classroom more respectful.” They seem to think it “respectful” when a university instructor, a person in power over students, uses the forum of a classwide email to savage one of her own students.
Second, “this investigation will dilute the academic integrity of all classrooms by restricting professorial autonomy in teaching, researching, and developing courses.” Indeed. “Academic integrity” demands that instructors be allowed to develop discussion topics as traps set for any unwitting white, heterosexual Christian male. Should one take the bait and join the discussion expecting a “safe and inclusive” classroom environment, “professional autonomy” merits the instructor singling him out to the rest of the class as the “perfect example” for them to rail against. Heaven forfend such things be diluted.
Third, “this investigation compromises UNC-Chapel Hill’s internal policies and policy-creating mechanisms, and could subject our school’s code to constant re-interpretation. UNC-Chapel Hill must do everything it can, in spite of this investigation, to ensure that our university remains committed to both the cultivation of respectful environments in classrooms and the maintenance of academic integrity.”
“Constant re-interpretation” apparently means removing that unstated “historically marginalized” clause. The activists fear what could follow: harsh, cold, unfeeling equality.
The Crystall controversy has perfectly demonstrated the palpable tension between university anti-harassment codes and the First Amendment protection of speech. You cannot simultaneously protect people’s feelings and ensure free speech. Even worse for the codes and their supporters, the Crystall controversy clearly shows why you cannot have a policy on speech that protects everyone’s feelings equally. Such a policy needs an understanding of what it is really “meant to protect.” Respecting this student’s feelings, the activists say, would “pervert” UNC-CH’s code. That’s because the code isn’t “meant to protect” a white, heterosexual, Christian male’s feelings. It’s meant to protect theirs.
The activists are calling the OCR investigation “unnecessary” because they can’t stand for one of theirs to be given a taste of their own anti-harassment medicine. Nevertheless, because UNC-CH handled this situation so well, the OCR investigation is unnecessary. This “prescription” is all wrong; you don’t prescribe the medicine after the patient has recovered.
After Crystall sent her email, James Thompson, the head of the English Dept., said he would be “monitoring the class closely for the rest of the semester” and made sure Crystall apologized. Thompson understood why “this incident is distressing to anyone interested in higher education and free and open speech.” As he wrote, “We are here at UNC to promote responsible and respectful exchange, not to discourage or censor it.”
Furthermore, Chancellor James Moeser issued a statement genuinely affirming the university’s commitment to academic freedom and respectful inclusiveness. In one memorable part, he said, “Some would argue that some ideas are so hurtful or so harmful that we should not permit them to be expressed. But any effort to declare a particular point of view off limits is, in my view, not consistent with our values as a totally free and open institution. The better approach is to encourage speech on all matters, with all points of view.”
Moeser’s statement preceded the homosexual activists’ petition by nearly a month. Clearly, they find it unacceptable. Perhaps it makes them feel uncomfortable. Whatever the reason, they believe, to paraphrase from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, that some pigs are more entitled to comfortable feelings than others. And they are some pigs.
Jon Sanders (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a policy analyst for the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.