PC Culture

Mandatory Gender-Neutral Pronoun Rules Are a Threat to Campus Free Speech

(Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
A proposed policy from the University of Minnesota could compel students and professors to use certain pronouns.

College students used to get expelled for underage drinking, failing classes, or out-of-control frat parties. Now, using the wrong pronoun might just get you kicked off campus.

A recent “gender identity” policy proposal at the University of Minnesota could compel students and faculty to use the pronouns that their gender-nonconforming peers prefer. Students and staff could risk punishment or even firing and expulsion for refusing to use pronouns such as “ze” and “they.”

This might sound absurd, but assaults on free speech are nothing new on campuses controlled by the progressive Left. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a higher-education civil-rights watchdog, 32 percent of American universities boast policies that clearly and severely limit student speech, and nearly 60 percent have potentially problematic free-speech rules. Our northern neighbors on Canadian campuses are bound by laws barring the use of “incorrect” pronouns for transgender people, and the University of Minnesota shows this could be where American universities are headed next.

That future should terrify you. Mandatory-pronoun rules would surely stifle campus conversations about gender and endanger academic freedom.

How will students learn if they are effectively barred from questioning campus orthodoxy? On today’s college campuses, it’s taken for granted that there are infinite genders and that people can change their gender regardless of their biological sex. But not all students agree, and conservatives on campus often hold starkly divergent views on gender and sex. The idea that students should be forced to use certain words associated with ideas they oppose isn’t just oppressive — it’s blatantly unconstitutional.

Remember, the University of Minnesota is a public university, which means it’s bound by the First Amendment to respect the free-speech rights of students. Free speech doesn’t just protect us from censorship; it also protects against compelled speech. In Wooley v. Maynard, the Supreme Court ruled that residents of New Hampshire couldn’t be forced to bear the inherently political slogan “live free or die” on their license plates. This constitutional principle has been reaffirmed countless times since.

After decades of such free-speech precedents, it’s unlikely that mandatory-pronoun rules would pass constitutional muster. Samantha Harris, FIRE’s vice president of policy research, told me in an email that “it would certainly be unconstitutional for a public university to require students and faculty to use gender-neutral pronouns or face punishment,” although she noted that since the language of the University of Minnesota’s proposed policy is vague, it’s possible that this wouldn’t be how the rule was implemented. But it’s clear that if they did force students to use pronouns they disagreed with, university administrators would be trampling over the Constitution in their race to prove their progressive bona fides — and students shouldn’t stand for it.

From my experience as a conservative activist on campus, it’s clear to me that most right-of-center students don’t actually want to harass transgender people — and many are even willing to use alternative pronouns — but rather they take issue with the idea that we should be compelled to do so. I spoke with Michael Geiger, a conservative student at the University of Minnesota, and his frustration with the administration’s new proposal was clear: “The fact that the bill is receiving serious consideration shows that the school’s administration has no grasp of what free speech means and why it is so important.” If liberal faculty really want to promote the inclusion of transgender students, force simply isn’t the way to do it. In fact, it may only engender more hostility.

It’s not just students who are affected by mandatory-pronoun policies––the rule would apply to professors as well. Liberal as they may often be, educators should realize that they can’t do their job if the conversation on crucial subjects such as gender and identity is shut down by left-wing campus crusaders. University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson became a conservative sensation for defying oppressive pronoun laws in Canada, and he has criticized past mandates, saying: “In order to be able to think, you have to risk being offensive.”

He’s right. Whether it’s trying to ban “hate speech” or forcing students to use certain pronouns, university administrators are taking the wrong approach. Inclusion can’t be forced and adhering to the Constitution isn’t optional.


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