Free Speech At Colleges Getting Drowned Out By Controversy Avoidance

The T-ball mentality has spread to many colleges and universities.

This trend should concern parents, grandparents, students, prospective employers and others. It should concern us because access to a rigorous education has helped make the United States an academic powerhouse in the world and has moved our nation forward economically and socially.

But the attitude wrapped up in T-ball is throwing a wrench into that.

The attitude draws its name from the children’s sports leagues where 5- and 6-year-old boys and girls are introduced to softball and baseball by hitting the ball off a tee.

No score is kept in T-ball games, and many leagues give every player a ribbon or trophy when the season ends. Officials do this because they don’t want to discourage young participants who are just learning to play ball.

That’s fine for a children’s game. Unfortunately, a corollary of that approach is eating away at a growing number of college campuses — places like the University of Oregon.

The school suspended law professor Nancy Shurtz after she hosted a Halloween party at her home for students, a few professors and others. Shurtz told students ahead of time that her costume would be a popular book title.

But when people got to the party, they learned the book was “Black Man in a White Coat,” a black physician’s reflections on race and medicine. And Shurtz’s costume was a white lab coat like doctors wear, a stethoscope, black makeup on her face and hands, and a curly black wig.

Some of the people at the party were offended, and word of the party and photos of Shurtz’s costume touched off an uproar on campus. The school concluded last month that she was guilty of “discriminatory harassment” — even though Shurtz said she admires the book’s author and was trying to stimulate a thoughtful discussion about the lack of racial diversity, especially black men, in higher education.

College campuses were once known for their robust debates and freewheeling discussions of issues in the classrooms, in the dormitories and at campus gathering spots. But these days, school administrators, like T-ball coaches, don’t want to offend students or their parents. And too many students want their college experience to be free of uncomfortable discussions.

University of Oregon administrators took the position that wearing a costume that offends some people based on race constitutes harassment. “Bigotry and racism have no place in our society or at the UO,” the university said.

But the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education said last week, “Students and professors are in trouble if they are at risk for punishment any time their expression motivates rigorous debate on campus.”

The advocacy organization said, “Instead of appreciating the dialogue among students and professors as a sign of a well-functioning university, [University of Oregon] administrators have characterized this result as a problem to be avoided. The university’s response thus far and any additional punishment it metes out provide those who disagree with any speaker a perverse incentive to react as disruptively as possible in an attempt to shut the speaker down — effectively creating a heckler’s veto.”

Eugene Volokh, a University of California, Los Angeles, law professor and First Amendment expert, said, “The University of Oregon made clear to its faculty: If you say things about race, sexual orientation, sex, religion and so on that enough people find offensive, you could get suspended and even fired.”

If universities are motivated to avoid controversy, where will that attitude lead?

Free speech and free inquiry into controversial issues and current events are cornerstones of great universities. Of course there can be no room for professors who improperly discriminate in their grading.

The Oregon case involves a professor who tried in a clumsy way to stimulate discussion about racial diversity. What about a professor whose classroom comments are perceived by some as too pro-Trump (or too anti-Trump)? Or what about the professor whose comments are seen as too supportive of Islam and immigration (or not supportive enough)?

Maybe the guest speaker’s comments are too conservative (or they might be too liberal). They might be too pro-Israel (or too anti-Israel). Or too anti-abortion (or too pro-choice).

Being offended by a professor or guest lecturer — or by another student down the hall — is something for which there is no end in sight.

We need to remember that college is intended to prepare young adults for the outside world. We are kidding ourselves if we think a college’s attitude of offend no one is going to adequately prepare people for the next chapter in their lives.

The working world is not a T-ball team.


by Randy Evans

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