Politics & Policy

McCarthyism on Campus

Congress should consider withholding funding from universities that discourage free speech.

‘F**k! The Maine same-sex-marriage initiative passed!”

This is what someone who does not know me and happened to be passing my university office the day after the fall elections allegedly heard me say on the telephone.

He filed a complaint with my employer’s Equal Opportunity Office.

On November 19, 2012, I was forced to meet with the executive director of the EOO, and with the chair of my department, to have a “conversation” about the complaint.

The director threatened to investigate on her own if I did not show up.

The complainant said that he found the allegedly overheard expression “offensive.” He said — or the director inferred — that he was gay, that the remark indicated a demeaning attitude toward his lifestyle and made him uncomfortable, and that believing that a senior professor felt vehement opposition to the passing of the Maine initiative created for him a “hostile work environment.”

The director assured me that the complaint was in an unspecified category that did not rise to the level of an actual legal complaint of harassment or discrimination.

I asked if she would investigate a complaint by someone with a traditional religious orientation who overheard a senior faculty member vehemently expressing joy that a state same-sex-marriage initiative had passed. She said, “No,” such a person would not be a member of a “protected class.”

Persevering, the director asked me again what I had said on the phone. I objected that she was inquiring about my political views. She denied that, saying she wanted to know what I had said only because a complainant’s knowing that a “senior faculty member” held a view different from his could make him “very uncomfortable.”

But only some discomfort-causing views are investigated by the university.

On April 29, 2009, my school’s official newspaper, BU Today, ran an interview with a Boston University law professor described as a gay-rights supporter and “an advisor for Outlaw, the law school’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender student group.” When asked about arguments against same-sex marriage, he replied, “Most of them are religiously based, but marriage is a civil institution. So I don’t think private morals have any place in this debate, and I don’t think I should have to live by someone else’s moral code or religion.”

I wrote to the university provost asking, “Is there a listing of political opinions that are acceptable to the university and/or to the EOO Director posted somewhere on our Web site to inform employees when they have the wrong views?” More than two months later, I got a reply stating that the university enforces all federal and state discrimination and harassment laws and, in addition, is a supporter of academic freedom.

Now, three and a half years later, the issue of political opinions acceptable to the university has arisen again. While there is no actual posting anywhere on the university website of political views that may not be expressed on the school campus, there is certainly an unwritten list that includes opposition to same-sex marriage, and there are real consequences to ignoring that list.

Accompanied as it was by the clear threat to undertake an “investigation” — presumably by questioning colleagues and students about my political beliefs — and the direct demand to know what political view I had expressed on the Maine marriage initiative, the EOO director ‘s coerced “conversation,” with the department chair present, was an unambiguous attempt to intimidate me as an employee for holding wrongheaded political views.

It is not clear whether this “investigation” of employees for expression of their political views is a policy of the university or a personal initiative undertaken by the EOO director. In either case, the EEO’s abuse of power by intimidating employees with political views that differ from some unspecified set of positions on issues is just another piece in a comprehensive effort to eliminate diversity of political expression on our campuses. It is a particularly frightening one.

The Supreme Court is in the process of deciding Fisher v. University of Texas, in which the question is whether consideration of race in admissions violates the 14th Amendment rights of white students who are bypassed in favor of minorities. I have very strong political views on affirmative action. I also have very strong views on U.S. military actions and on any of a number of other political issues touching on race, religion, sex, age, disability, and other characteristics that distinguish one group of people from another.

If I express those views, will I be subjected to another “investigation” for civil-rights violations?

What can be done to halt the erosion of civil liberties on our campuses? Two approaches suggest themselves.

The first is an extension the reasoning in Rumsfeld v. F.A.I.R., in which the Supreme Court unanimously held that Congress might withhold all funding from universities that permit their law schools to deny military recruiters access to campus. That decision brought military recruiters to nearly every law school in the country.

The second approach also calls on the power of the purse: Ask Congress to reconsider the “private” status of so-called private universities that violate constitutional liberties when a significant proportion of their annual funding comes from government sources. In research support alone, the federal government provides universities well over $30 billion a year. How private is a school when it is dependent for its very survival on the continuing flow of millions of taxpayer dollars?

Money talks. When it does, freedom of speech may be restored for all of us on campus.

— Margaret A. Hagen is a professor in the psychology department at Boston University.

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