Remember when universities were considered free marketplaces of ideas? They serve the opposite purpose now: to instill in students a deep fear of expressing any thought deemed politically incorrect by the authorities. Local administrators are complicit, but the drive to enforce rigid ideological conformity is being imposed by the source of all serious problems in our society — the federal government.
Last month, in a joint letter from Obama’s Education and Justice Departments to the University of Montana, the Regime laid down the law regarding permissible speech under the guise of preventing “sexual harassment.”
The letter rejects the requirement, established by legal precedent and previous Education Department guidance, that sexual harassment must be “objectively offensive.” By eliminating this “reasonable person” standard—which the Education Department has required since at least 2003, and which protects the accused against unreasonable or insincere allegations—the right not to be offended has been enshrined in a federal mandate.
The letter further states that campuses have “an obligation to respond to student-on-student harassment” even when that harassment occurs off-campus. In some circumstances, the letter says, universities may take “disciplinary action against the harasser” even “prior to the completion of the Title IX and Title IV investigation/resolution.” In plain English: Students can be punished before they are found guilty of harassment.
Be nice to gays. All they have to do is accuse you of saying “homo” and you could find yourself expelled.
Given that the letter represents an interpretation of federal law by major federal agencies, most colleges will regard it as binding. Noncompliance threatens federal funding, including Pell grants and Stafford loans.
Ostensibly free money from the federal government doesn’t come with strings; it comes with chains.
This attack on campus free speech follows the Education Department’s directive two years ago requiring every college in the country that receives federal funds to lower the standard of evidence in sexual-harassment cases. The “preponderance of the evidence,” the judiciary’s lowest standard of proof, became the required standard. (Many institutions had previously used the “clear and convincing” standard.) As former Dean of Harvard College Harry Lewis has noted, the “preponderance of evidence” mandate means “more convictions—of both guilty and innocent individuals,” which is a troubling result “in a society that values individual rights.”
Then it won’t be troubling for us. By electing liberals, we have rejected individual rights in favor of group rights. If you don’t belong to a group that earns rights by being “oppressed,” you’re up a creek.
Recent history gives no reason to expect that the government’s new directive on “verbal conduct” will remain confined to sexual speech. At Tufts in 2007, a conservative student publication was found guilty of harassment for criticizing Islam. The same happened to a professor at Purdue University at Calumet in 2012, who faced a four-month investigation.
An obsession with political correctness and the expansion of bureaucracy on campus are key factors in the proliferation of such free-speech abuses. But the hidden force that pushes schools to overreact to offensive, or merely dissenting, speech is fear of liability and the federal government. A growing “risk-management” industry—complete with regular conferences, conventions and consultants—has arisen from efforts by university administrators trying to avoid being sued for discrimination or harassment, and to avoid the costly investigations in which the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights specializes.
That’s how it works under soft tyranny, in contrast to the hard tyranny practice of dragging you out of bed in the middle of the night to face a firing squad or train to Siberia. The consequence for the free exchange of ideas is the same. As we become accustomed to saying only what we feel sure our rulers want us to say, soft tyranny tactics will give way to hard.
On a tip from Henry.