Democracy Tree: First Amendment rights under seige

by Amy Kerr Hardin

“Truth comes from the competition of ideas. Critical thinking skills involve listening to both sides.” — Robert Rosenkranz, chairman of Intelligence Squared, speaking at a debate over the question of free speech on campus.

Troubles come to a boiling point on campus:

The First Amendment is under attack, and not just due to unconstitutional school policies, of which there are plenty. No, it’s all too frequently the student body itself demanding censorship of free speech. Collective outrage over opposing opinions has become epidemic in the halls and on the quads of American academia. It’s a hot topic, earning front page billing in two major publications just this week.

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The Newsweek piece opens without any preliminary niceties. Presenting their premise, author Nina Burleigh launches with the following:

“Graduates of the Class of 2016 are leaving behind campuses that have become petri dishes of extreme political correctness and heading out into a world without trigger warnings, safe spaces and free speech zones, with no rules forbidding offensive verbal conduct or microaggressions, and where the names of cruel, rapacious capitalists are embossed in brass and granite on buildings across the land. Baby seals during the Canadian hunting season may have a better chance of survival.”

By way of example, Burleigh reminds her readers that it wasn’t until last year that the 20-year-running acclaimed play, The Vagina Monologues, was censored. In 2o15, Mount Holyoke College cancelled its performance explaining that “the show offers an extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a woman.” Bottomline — it was considered insensitive to transgender women.

If readers agree, I suggest that, as a purely intellectual exercise, they consider for a moment if the production was instead about the angst and anguish of women who lacked that particular anatomical feature at birth — should the college axe that performance too? Would they consider that non-inclusive of women with vaginas?

Last March we reported on some bipartisan legislation proposed in the Michigan Senate which would offer specific protections from censorship for student journalists at public institutions. That bill remains lodged in committee, but lawmakers in Arizona have taken the fight to the next level by successfully enacting a law with much broader protections of free speech in public schools. The legislation prevents school administrators from setting up “free speech zones” — an egregious rule designed to limit First Amendment protections at colleges and universities. The policy shunts students and protestors engaged in acts of expression to specific areas, often on the campus boondocks, where few will hear their message. They additionally gave the thumbs-up to a new law which would impose criminal penalties for protesters who physically interfere with the right of others to assemble. The latter legislation seems to have been inspired by protests which blocked individuals from participating in Trump rallies. (More on the irony of Trump below.)

Greg Lukianoff, a self-proclaimed liberal and atheist, is the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education — a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization championing free speech in higher education. In an Intelligence Squared Debate last year, he described the reality on campuses as biased toward liberal free speech, and stifling of intellectual diversity, especially of conservative voices. From his opening statement:

“If you’re going to be censored on the modern college campus for your opinion, chances are you are going to be censored by the left… Take any hot topic in America today and I can point you to examples of students and faculty members getting in trouble for being on the conservative side of the issue.”

Lukianoff went on to specifically cite a number of such examples, including an incident at Dartmouth where a Pro-Choice student, with a “Coexist” bumper sticker, felt so offended by a Pro-Life campus display of tiny American flags, that he felt compelled to run it over with his car.

It’s no laughing matter:

Standup comedians think twice about booking college gigs anymore because they’re finding student audiences are increasingly unable to process the very nature of humor and its role to push the envelope in our freedom-loving culture. And some schools have taken their new humorless environment to the point of censorship by decree, requiring comedians to sign contracts agreeing to avoid offensive language and sensitive topics. The kangaroo court of social media is in part driving the self-censorship crusade, as students and faculty worry about backlash on Twitter and Facebook.

A documentary on the trend to stifle comedy, Can We Take a Joke?, is due out this summer.

“It’s the duty of a comedian to find out where the line is drawn and deliberately cross over it.” — Gilbert Godfrey in Can We Take a Joke?

View the trailer below.

Troubles off campus abound:

In a larger sense, free speech is in the national crosshairs in the realm of the tender sensibilities of presidential politics. Donald Trump, the king of unmitigated hubris, has vowed, if elected, to curtail the First Amendment rights of the media as they continue to report his all too frequent dumbo eruptions — with the irony being that it’s his own free speech that he should be self-policing. The presumptive GOP nominee simply does not enjoy the right not to be offended, particularly by the repetition of his own hate-filled speech. Yet, if the worst were to happen in November, this thin-skinned manbaby, along with his low-information sycophants, could further imperil First Amendment protections both on and off campus. Yes, with the authority of the oval office, he would have much more than the abusive power of civil litigation at his disposal.

It’s not as if it hasn’t happened in American history. Gene Policinski of the First Amendment Center recently wrote a cautionary op-ed reminding us that back in 1909 none other than sitting president Theodore Roosevelt ordered government attorneys to sue newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer over his coverage questionAmy Kerr Hardining the purchase of properties related to the construction of the Panama Canal. Policinski expressed concern that the landmark 1964 Supreme Court ruling, New York Times Company v. Sullivan, may be in peril. The unanimous decision found that public officials, (later extended to include public figures), bore the burden of proof that a journalist intentionally and recklessly disregarded the truth. Lest we forget, a President Trump would likely be naming the next Supreme Court Justice, thereby determining the balance of the high court.

Now more than ever, our nation needs young adults familiar with the rights and responsibilities that accompany the First Amendment.

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