At Marquette University, an ethics teacher refused to allow a class discussion on gay marriage because gays in the room might be offended by negative opinions.
At Harvard Law, Dean Martha Minow cited “hurt” as her reason for sending a campus-wide e-mail excoriating a student who said, in a private message, that some research on race and intelligence might be worthwhile.
At Oberlin, a thousand people signed a petition to “discontinue the standard grading system” this semester for black students because they have ”suffered significant trauma” from the grand jury decisions in the Ferguson and Staten Island cases.
At the University of Michigan, a conservative Muslim student, Omar Mahmood, set off a month-long campus uproar, and some vandalism, by hurting the feelings of progressives with a satirical article on liberal attitudes.
And students at several law schools want to eliminate rape law from the curriculum because discussing it is too traumatic, according to Harvard Law professor Jeannie Suk, writing in The New Yorker.
These are routine reactions on the modern hypersensitive campus, where hurt feelings regularly trump free speech, free inquiry and ordinary common sense.
For more than 20 years, campus speech and behavior codes have been written in the language of feelings, banning “offensive language,” “hurtful comments,” “disparaging remarks,” or anything that would render a student “uncomfortable.” Though many of these codes have been ruled unconstitutional, the language tends to pop up again in various campus rules. The University of California’s sexual-harassment “info sheet” defines sexual harassment as, among other things, “Humor and jokes about sex in general that make someone feel uncomfortable or that they did not consent to . . . ” A particularly gross example of feelings-based regulation: recently Yale grounds for initiating a sexual-assault complaint to include a student’s “worry” about possible rape.
Feelings in effect are the measure of student misconduct, and causing a student to feel bad is viewed as a form of assault (at least if the offended student is gay, female or a member of a non-Asian minority). Hypersensitivity accounts for new concerns about “trigger warnings” on potentially traumatic material and “microaggressions” (hard-to-notice little snubs on race and identity), plus the trauma some Wellesley students reported this year upon seeing a statue of a man in his underwear planted on campus.
Chris Rock drew attention to the campus hurt-feelings movement as an obstacle to comedy, telling Frank Rich of New York magazine that he no longer performs on campuses because ”everything offends students these days.” Professor Suk writes: ”For at least some students, the classroom has become a potentially traumatic environment, and they have begun to anticipate the emotional injuries they could suffer or inflict in classroom conversation.”
So far resistance to the campus hurt-feelings culture has drawn little support from faculty and none from college administrations. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) opposes all form of speech codes and its president, Greg Lukianoff, warns that today’s students are “unlearning liberty “ on campus. FIRE’s latest report, Spotlight on Speech Codes 2014: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses, finds that nearly 60 percent of the 427 colleges and universities analyzed maintain policies that seriously infringe upon the free-speech rights of students. What happens when students who tamely accept these policies are running the country?
— John Leo is editor of Minding the Campus, an online magazine of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.