Education

Classroom Censorship Comes to the University of Oklahoma

Campus of the University of Oklahoma in Norman. (University of Oklahoma/Facebook)
An on-campus workshop instructed faculty in how to suppress unwelcome speech.

Late last month, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) obtained a video recording of an “Anti-Racist Rhetoric and Pedagogies” workshop that was presented to faculty in the English Department at the University of Oklahoma. Originally held in April 2021, this hour-long workshop was intended to teach instructors how to eliminate racist comments and shut down unwanted speech in the classroom without fear of administrative repercussions. The tactics and guidelines set down in the workshop are so broad that they threaten basically any speech that those who might apply them dislike.

Assistant teaching professor Kelli Alvarez led a presentation titled “Setting an Anti-Racist Tone,” in which she describes the expectations she sets for her classes each semester. In her class, students are to avoid “derogatory remarks, critiques, and hate speech” in the classroom and in their writing (18:10). She also has her students read “When Free Speech Becomes Unfree” by Ibram X. Kendi. According to Alvarez, the premise of the article is that “there’s no such thing as free speech” and that someone is paying for what we say, emotionally and physically.

In the workshop, Alvarez continued with the false claim that hate speech is not protected by the Constitution, and failed to cite any Supreme Court case that supports this argument. Instead, she encouraged instructors to tell their students, “No, you don’t have the right to say that. Stop talking right now.” She maintained that students can and should disagree with one another. But if their disagreement is “rooted in the oppression and denial of humanity and someone’s right to exist,” it is not allowed. That would be denying someone “their basic human rights” and “human dignity,” which is “not conducive or productive.”

Alvarez uses a guilt tactic in her classroom to express her stance on hate speech to get students to comply with her expectations. “When we frame it this way, if they wanted to push back against that, what’s their response? ‘Oh no, I want to deny someone’s humanity.’ Who’s gonna say that, right?”

Who decides what speech is acceptable at OU? If departments at the university are encouraging instructors to censor students, how far will they go? With no clear definition of hate speech, instructors have free rein to stop the exercise of free thought and speech in their classrooms. This dangerous practice leaves students who dare to challenge liberal professors in fear of being ostracized and targeted for exercising their basic human right to an opinion.

This workshop shows that, even at the flagship university of one of the reddest states in the nation, the First Amendment rights of students are under attack. Conservative students on our campus have been targeted for their beliefs with nothing more than their personal experiences to share. Employees of the University of Oklahoma have repeatedly stressed that they do not condone censorship and that their campus is a place of belonging for all, but conservative students have experienced censorship firsthand in their classrooms and in their student organizations. Their reports and concerns have been disregarded to hide the First Amendment violations that have taken place at OU.

This training proves that students have been targeted by the very university that touts its free-speech protections and constantly reassures students that they are welcome and respected at the University of Oklahoma, regardless of their political inclinations. It is now clear that the mission of university faculty is to control the narrative on campus and to censor students who do not conform to liberal ideologies.

The efforts made by the university to instruct professors to limit free thought and free speech in the classroom are deeply concerning and blatantly unconstitutional. Colleges and universities are meant to be places where students encounter new ideas and challenge them intellectually, and where civil discourse can occur.

When schools like the University of Oklahoma begin to silence one side of the argument, they are undermining the principles our country was founded upon. Instead, these efforts further divide students from their peers and their professors, leaving no room for intellectual and social growth.

If you listened to OU faculty, you’d think that there wasn’t a problem. Responding to FIRE’s report, Belinda Higgs Hyppolite, OU’s chief diversity officer and its vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion, stressed that the workshop was “voluntary” and claimed that “the University of Oklahoma unequivocally values free expression and the diversity of all viewpoints.”

When Oklahoma’s H.B. 1775, which banned critical race theory from being taught in the state, was passed in May 2021 (but before the governor signed it), OU faculty received an email in which OU president Joseph Harroz Jr. wrote, “I can assure you that we would fight for the integrity of academic freedom at OU if that were ever to be in question.” He added, “As an institution of higher learning, we are a fertile ground for the exchange of free ideas and the celebration of all forms of diversity. This bill, should it be passed, will not limit our efforts to continue honoring academic freedom and fostering an inclusive environment.” In a message sent to OU community members the next day, Harroz wrote, “I do not believe the Oklahoma Legislature’s intent was to limit academic freedom or freedom of speech. Even if it were the intent, I do not believe such a measure would pass constitutional scrutiny. To our faculty, if that were ever to be in danger of occurring, let me assure you we would do everything in our power to ensure the continuance and full vitality of true academic freedom.” OU faculty, in other words, talk a big game about defending free speech.

But its actions speak for themselves. Any administration of higher education that condones the obstruction of a student’s First Amendment rights, let alone designs and implements a faculty-driven, subversive attempt to violate federal and state law, is hypocritical and should be met with extreme repercussions from lawmakers. Addressing racism in the classroom is one thing; it’s entirely another thing to be “antiracist,” to want to shut down debate and to use rhetorical and reflexive accusations of racism to ostracize and silence students with opinions you deem incorrect. That’s the kind of behavior this training encourages at OU. It doesn’t sound like free speech to me.

Conservative students at the University of Oklahoma support the protection of free speech, especially for those with whom we disagree. All we ask is that our university provides us the same protections and does everything in its power to honor our right to speak freely. If the University of Oklahoma wants to be “a fertile ground for the exchange of free ideas and the celebration of all forms of diversity,” then it should stop instructing faculty on how to suppress freedom of speech.

Kiara Kincaid is a rising senior at the University of Oklahoma, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in political science, with a minor in constitutional studies.

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