Censorship and Higher Education: Some Thoughts

Democracy Plaza at IUPUI. Photo by Curtis Ailes. Website: http://hustonstreetracing.com/blog/?p=119
Democracy Plaza at IUPUI. Photo by Curtis Ailes. Website: http://hustonstreetracing.com/blog/?p=119

In 2007, Keith John Sampson, a janitor and student at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI, the school I go to today), was found guilty by campus administration of racial harassment after reading a book about the Klu Klux Klan that had a cover with Klansmen burning crosses on the front of it. One of Sampson’s co-workers found the book offensive, apparently. IUPUI officials stated that Sampson had been “openly reading a book [Yes, that’s how you read a book. It can’t be closed.] related to a historically and racially abhorrent subject.”

IUPUI officials later rescinded the charge and apologized to Sampson for their actions. It is clear that in this particular instance, the school administration was out of line and did not treat Sampson fairly. Ironically, Sampson had checked out the book at the university library, which makes the case even more absurd. You can watch a short documentary on Sampson’s story below, although I will preface by stating that 1. The term “politically correct” is meaningless and shouldn’t be in the title of this film, and 2. We don’t get a chance to hear from Sampson’s accuser and their side of the story. That is quite problematic, in my opinion.

Back in November, nationally syndicated columnist George F. Will picked up on this story and used it to lament the loss of free speech on college campuses across the nation. This is strange, because the Sampson case has nothing to do with freedom of speech. It’s a case over the freedom to read what one chooses. I do think Will is correct in pointing out that many schools have a liberal bias. Few would disagree with that. But liberal bias does not equate to censorship, nor are all schools liberally biased (although all schools and the people running those institutions are biased, because all people are biased). Censorship is something that needs to be taken seriously on college campuses, but I don’t think George Will is the right person to lead this crusade against censorship on college campuses. He is clearly mistaken on how a college campus operates. To wit:

[The Sampson case] reflects the right never to be annoyed, a new campus entitlement. Legions of administrators, who now outnumber full-time faculty, are kept busy making students mind their manners, with good manners understood as conformity to liberal politics. Liberals are most concentrated and untrammeled on campuses, so look there for evidence of what, given the opportunity, they would do to America.

Really? I have never had a faculty member or administrator at IUPUI force me to “mind my manners,” nor have I been forced to conform to “liberal politics,” and I have no clue what “good manners” means in this context. Furthermore, it is actually tough to get in contact with some administrators on campus, not the other way around. The last statement in bold is just silly and loaded with a bunch of fear-mongering.

Will then cites a book by Greg Lukianoff entitled Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate to argue that liberal censorship is rampant. I have not read the book, so I will not comment on it, but the book description contradicts Will’s case. The book, we are told, chronicles instances of censorship run amok. These include “a student in Georgia expelled for a pro-environment collage he posted on Facebook” [Liberal Bias?], “students at Yale banned from putting an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote on a T shirt” [Liberal Bias?], and “public controversies involving Juan Williams, Rush Limbaugh, Bill Maher, Richard Dawkins, Larry Summers—even Dave Barry and Jon Stewart” [all conservatives, right?]. Seems to me that while Lukianoff is determined to end censorship of all kinds, Will is only interested in ending censorship by liberals.

Then we get this business about “free speech zones,” which Will describes as such:

Many campuses congratulate themselves on their broad-mindedness when they establish small “free-speech zones” where political advocacy can be scheduled. At one point Texas Tech’s 28,000 students had a “free-speech gazebo” that was 20 feet wide. And you thought the First Amendment made America a free-speech zone.

Here, Will falsely assumes that because free speech zones were established on college campuses, free-speech doesn’t exist on other parts of campus. I had never heard of “free speech zones” until I came to IUPUI, where there are several locations. The most prominent is called Democracy Plaza. The reasons for establishing a free speech zone are described as such:

Democracy Plaza at Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis was created with the purpose of providing students, faculty, and staff with an opportunity to express, speak, and hear diverging thoughts surrounding social, political, economic, and religious issues relevant to the campus, city, state, country, and world. The project was started in the summer of 2004 when a group of students, faculty, and staff at IUPUI worked together to address the benefits and drawbacks of a physical structure outside of the traditional walls of academia that would seek to host a common area for students, faculty, and staff across the array of disciplines.

In my opinion, “free speech zones” exist because the sheer volume of students and faculty can be overwhelming for students on campus. This problem is particularly acute at urban campuses like IUPUI, where the vast majority of students are commuters who have few opportunities to establish an on-campus community of friends and associates. Finding connections beyond the classroom has been a struggle for many people at IUPUI, myself included. Furthermore,  IUPUI does not have a school newspaper, which I find to be a great shame. In reality, Democracy Plaza acts as a small mechanism in which to facilitate dialogue and new relationships between a wide range of people.

I should also add that “conservative bias” exists in some academic institutions. My Alma matter (a private school, mind you) was under fire last year for supporting a campus religious group that was allegedly engaged in intimidation towards certain individuals and groups on campus. Furthermore, I have heard from friends still enrolled at the university that the campus IT department has recently blocked access to websites with information on birth control and even Netflix. To be sure, Lindenwood University is a fine institution, one that is rapidly improving and that did a lot to help push my career forward. I cite Lindenwood to merely point out that “bias” runs both ways, and that censorship is something to be taken seriously in all academic institutions–public and private–regardless of their political tendencies. We should also remember that if real racism occurred in the Sampson case and IUPUI had done nothing about it, the criticism would be towards IUPUI for their inaction. Academic institutions hear claims of mistreatment from their student bodies on a constant basis, and in each case academic administrators must decide whether or not to take disciplinary action. Sometimes they really screw up. Does that mean a culture of censorship actually exists on most campuses?