Phi Beta Cons

How Do College Speech Codes Originate?

Todd Zywicki, professor at George Mason U. Law School, has been trying to get rid of his university’s speech code for years, but without success. He thought it would be a simple matter. Wrong — he’s been stonewalled by university bureaucrats who have no academic posts and apparently no regard for the importance of free-wheeling debate and discussion in the quest for truth. They just want a kumbaya campus with as little speech that might offend anyone as possible.

In today’s Pope Center Clarion Call, Professor Zywicki writes about the origins of speech codes and their defenders.

Especially telling, I think, is his exchange with the head of GMU’s “University Life” office. Zywicki complained about the vagueness of the code and was told that, he writes, “vagueness in a speech code is actually a positive virtue because, that way, students can be disciplined for disruptive conduct or speech that does not actually violate any rule.” Such vagueness means that GMU students don’t benefit from the rule of law, which means known boundaries, but instead are under the rule of bureaucratic whims.

He also notes that even at schools where bad codes have been eliminated (exemplified by a “green light” FIRE rating), officials can succumb to pressure to backslide into restrictive measures. As Jefferson said, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty and that’s true on college campuses with regard to free speech. Unless the guardians are vigilant, those bureaucrats will quietly bring back the speech controls they like.

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

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