Last fall, the Young Conservatives of Texas planned a mock sting operation to protest President Obama’s support for immigration reform, in which students would compete for prizes by tracking down activists posing as undocumented immigrant. Outraged liberal groups called for the event’s cancellation and planned counter-demonstrations. UT’s administration condemned the rally as well, but affirmed the group’s right to host it. When the Young Conservatives did call off the event, the administration reiterated that it had nothing to do with the decision.
There’s probably no better symbol of twenty-first century activism than a group of college students going viral with a buzzy, outrageous protest that never wound up happening. But a university letting them get away with it in the name of free expression? That, unfortunately, is a pretty novel concept.
Colleges did, once upon a time, stand firmly behind the notion that a student’s First Amendment rights are not shed at the schoolhouse gate, as the U.S. Supreme Court described it when siding with Vietnam War protesters over the Iowa high school that had sanctioned them. But outside of the Lone Star State, that ideal is fading even faster than tuition costs are rising. During this school year alone, universities in California have shut down Christian groups for stipulating that their leaders must be Christian, and Brandeis rescinded a speaking invitation it had extended to atheist activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali amid complaints over her treatment of Islam. And just last week, even as 3.7 million people poured out onto the streets of France in support of free speech, Duke University cancelled a Muslim call to prayer because of violent threats from Christian extremists.
UT, by virtue of its tolerance for student expression, is part of a dying breed.
That’s why I was surprised to see so many students across the country, and especially at UT, calling for a suspension of that privilege in the wake of this month’s Paris attacks. Screeds on the perils of free speech have cropped up across the Internet, manifested as semi-coherent Facebook posts and trendy thinkpieces from the likes of Vox and Buzzfeed. That reaction dovetails with a broader backlash against First Amendment protections in the U.S. A YouGov poll from last October found that 51 percent of Democrats support criminalizing vaguely defined “offensive speech,” while 51 percent of self-described “religious” folks support laws banning the equally fuzzy concept of “desecration.”
In that regard, extremists on the left and on the right have found common cause. They both want restrictions on speech that offends particular groups of people, even if they can’t agree on what “offensive” means or on which groups’ sensibilities need to be protected. And, in the interest of accommodation, too many universities are taking both of their sides by disciplining any student who dares to voice an unpopular opinion.
But prioritizing so-called “groups” over individuals is ridiculous on its face. Doing so gives a terrifying degree of power to those in a position to determine whether a group deserves protections. For instance, could a school that bans speech against Christianity, Islam or Judaism allow a cartoon mocking Pastafarians? Or if disgruntled steer wranglers decide that the Dallas Cowboys is a derogatory name, should the U.S. Patent Office cancel Jerry Jones’ trademark? If anything that offends a “group” is banned by authorities, any form of discussion, productive or not, could be instantly shut down.
Equally troubling is the idea of confining people into ideological boxes based on the “group” to which they belong. At a school as large and diverse as UT, it’s easy to see that no one is confined to a particular value system by the color of their skin, the building in which they worship or even their preferred political party. You can find both Democrats and Republicans involved in LGBT advocacy groups, African-Americans in Jewish organizations and Christians of all denominations in Arab-interest associations. Even the cancelled anti-immigration rally was organized by a group led by a Hispanic student.
That degree of cross-cultural engagement shouldn’t come as a surprise. No community is a monolith, and no human being is one-dimensional enough to see their reflection in a cartoon or a joke or a demonstration. Whether or not an expression of speech is offensive or hurtful is ingrained within an individual, not as an innate quality of the particular group with which they identify but as a consequence of their personal experiences, beliefs and prejudices. By insinuating otherwise, speech-code activists — and the schools that kowtow to their demands — deprive students of the right to choose what does and doesn’t bother them.
That delivers a more damaging message than a colored pencil or a megaphone ever could.
Shenhar is a Plan II, economics and government sophomore from Westport, Conn. He writes about campus issues. Follow Shenhar on Twitter @jshenhar.