Phi Beta Cons

Do UC’s “microaggression” guidelines crimp free speech?

Recently, the University of California system posted recommendations for faculty members regarding that all-important subject of microaggression. Very important to avoid them — they can “create a hostile learning environment.”

Once this began to attract attention, however, the UC brass felt the need to refute the idea that they are trying to shut down free speech, declaring, “UC is committed to upholding, encouraging, and preserving academic freedom and the free flow of ideas throughout the university.” Easy for them to say that, but won’t their recommendations inevitably have that effect?

Yes, argues UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh in this L.A. Times piece. Here is the core of his counter-argument against UC’s “don’t worry, be happy” missive:

Say you are a UC employee without tenure: a young professor, an adjunct lecturer, a teaching assistant. Your employer has repeatedly stressed the need to maintain a welcoming campus climate and to promote diversity.

Indeed, your employer makes “contributions to diversity and equal opportunity” — such as “research … that highlights inequalities” — a factor in employment decisions, according to its academic personnel manual.

Now your employer tells you that expressing certain views is tantamount to racial aggression, micro or otherwise.

Is your reaction, “No problem, I can write and say whatever I think is right about affirmative action or meritocracy — after all, people were only invited, not required, to attend the seminars where my opinions were condemned as a form of racism”?

Or would your reaction be, “If I want to keep my job, I had better avoid the views that my employer says are potentially ‘hostile, derogatory, or negative’”?

Volokh is right, of course. Any faculty member who is isn’t secure in his or her job is going to worry about the consequences if anyone on campus complains about a “microaggression.” Think about the Laura Kipnis affair at Northwestern. The only safe thing is never to write or say anything that a hypersensitive student might regard as offensive.

Volokh concludes, “University administrators have a duty to protection freedom of discussion, whether in the classroom, faculty lounge, scholarship, blog posts, or op-eds. In this instance, they have failed in that duty.”

I suspect that the UC brass knows that, but they don’t really care.

 

 

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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