In the spring of 2007, two student groups at Michigan State University invited a speaker, Chris Simcox, to campus to address the subject of illegal immigration. His talk was disrupted by leftist students and could only go on when some of them were arrested and others were removed from the hall. (You can see the video on YouTube.)
One of the protesting students, Gabriela Alcazar, president of Chicanos y Latinos Unidos at MSU, was quoted in the Lansing State Journal, “There’s a point where free speech is not protected; when you go into hate speech, when you go into fighting words.”
Attempts by intolerant groups to silence those whom they dislike aren’t especially unusual on American campuses. In this case, however, there was an Orwellian twist: some of the protestors complained that Simcox’s speech violated the university’s Anti-Discrimination Policy (ADP). They complained to the university’s Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives. Those who wanted to exclude a speaker they didn’t like complained to the Office for Inclusion! The faculty advisers to the groups (Professor William B. Allen, adviser to the MSU chapter of Young Americans for Freedom and I, adviser to the College Republicans) and all the students in those organizations stood accused just because some students disliked what the speaker had to say.
The letter informing us of the allegations stated that the ADP was violated “in some way,” and that we were alleged to have discriminated against people based on national origin, political persuasion, gender orientation, gender identity, race, religion and … weight! (That’s the wording of the policy, which is so broad that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has given Michigan State a “red light” rating, meaning that it clearly and significantly restricts freedom of speech.)
This story, with variations, is common on American college campuses. Universities that claim to be places of free enquiry display their left-leaning “inner tyrant” when it comes to speech that violates the central liberal orthodoxy that “protected classes” of people must be, well, protected. Protected from what? From whatever they don’t like, including opinions with which they disagree, called “hate speech.” But students grow intellectually through exposure to new, sometimes disagreeable ideas. Universities have abandoned their core mission if they allow ideas or arguments to be silenced through physical intimidation or vague “anti-discrimination” policies.
Campus anti-discrimination policies are effective for shutting down conservative speech because they are based on federal statute and law that establishes “protected classes” of people who are assumed to be the victims of discrimination and harassment in workplace and other settings. But universities like MSU have gone one step beyond in such policies, by including “verbal conduct” as possible form of harassment and discrimination against “protected classes.” Many colleges codify these protections in “speech codes” that prohibit what is referred to as “hate speech.” And that “hate speech” itself, of course, is what anyone in a protected class says it is.
As a result of the accusations by the student protesters, the Office for Inclusion launched an investigation to determine if those who sponsored the Simcox speech had violated the ADP. It took six months to produce a 126-page report concluding that that no discrimination had taken place, at least not at a “level” that called for any action against the student groups or their advisors. It was hardly a ringing endorsement of free speech.
The problem lies with policies like MSU’s that vaguely declare that individuals can be punished for speech that is considered “discrimination.” Speech is free or it is not. Enquiry is open or it is closed. At many universities, such policies mean that speech is not free and enquiry is closed. The lie about “free enquiry” must continue to be told, of course, because the whole system of tenure that protects the job security of professors is dependent upon the public belief that the university is a place for open, provocative and courageous debate.
Professor Allen and I resolved to illuminate that lie and began the effort to make at least one college campus adhere to its stated principles. We first confronted the investigation itself, demanding that the Office for Inclusion put on the record the specific charges that we would then answer in writing. We and the student group leaders refused to be interviewed unless recordings were made and transcribed. Almost needless to say, the Office for Inclusion refused that condition and their investigation proceeded with no input from any of us.
We publicized the Office for Inclusion’s investigation thoroughly so students, administrators, and political leaders would know what actually led to the controversy. We also proposed an amendment to the ADP to better protect free speech. We sponsored a showing of the movie “Indoctrinate U,” and leafleted students on the campus Library Bridge urging them to attend the event. We wrote letters and op-ed pieces, and gave numerous interviews to local news media that began to cover the story. And even more troubling for university officials, we began meeting with representatives in the state legislature, some of whom were starting to ask why free speech was so weakly protected that those who wanted to shout down a speaker could put the professors who sponsored him in the dock.
And if faculty could be put into the dock, what would be the fate of the students? Clearly, the university ADP and the Office for Inclusion could and would be used by those who would stifle dissent. At many campuses, such charges have resulted in conservative students facing “re-education” in “diversity” or “tolerance” programs meant to intimidate and silence them. Sometimes such assaults against free speech and conservative ideas have been countered by lawsuits. But the assault on free speech at Michigan State was different: it was met by the formation of a conservative group of faculty and staff.
The group, Conservative Faculty and Staff at Michigan State University, was founded in September 2008. The group has resolved to protect students who are under attack from liberal orthodoxy and it will also take the initiative to counter that liberal orthodoxy head-on through advocacy and activity promoting core American values. The group intends to focus its efforts on the damage that so-called “multiculturalism” does to the foundational principles of America and to our understanding and defense of those principles.
To date, there have been no further attacks on free speech on campus, but if and when there are such attacks, Conservative Faculty and Staff at Michigan State will defend anyone who is accused of “discrimination” simply for speaking his mind.