Mason earns freedom of speech award after changes to student code

(Photo credit: Claire Cecil/Fourth Estate)

Mason earned the highest “green light” rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) this past April after making changes to the Code of Student Conduct.

Joining the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary, Mason is the third school in Virginia to receive the green light, and the twentieth school in the country. To achieve this, FIRE worked closely with the Mason Director of Special Diversity Projects Dennis Webster and law professor Todd Zywicki to revise seven different university policies. The changes include revisions to the sexual harassment, flyer posting and leafleting policies.

Freedom of speech and expression goes to the core of what it means to be a university. There must be a place in society where people can air controversial ideas, even if that ruffles other people’s feathers. The university is that place,” Zywicki said.

The revisions to Mason’s code came after almost a decade of FIRE advocating for changes. The foundation began investigating the university in 2005, after a student was arrested for protesting military recruiters on campus. According to FIRE’s press release and a Washington Post article published that year, Tariq Khan, an Air Force veteran and student, silently protested the recruiters’ table by standing next to them wearing a “Recruiters Lie” sign on his chest and passing out handbills. After having the sign ripped off his chest by two other students, Khan was arrested for disorderly conduct by campus police and found in violation of a Mason policy that banned the distribution of publications that are “inconsistent with the mission of the University.” The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) planned to defend Khan in the ensuing litigation, though all charges against Khan were eventually dropped. FIRE also started to directly appeal to the university president during that time, Dr. Alan Merten, and found many of Mason’s policies unconstitutional.

Mason’s changes and rating come at a time when certain federal lawmakers, – like Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Roanoke) – media outlets, – like the Huffington Post – and academic organizations – like the American Association of University Professors – are claiming that universities around the country are making shifts towards the opposite direction, one that often chooses political correctness over freedom of expression.

“Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities,” wrote Greg Lukianoff, CEO of FIRE, and Jonathan Haidt, a professor at NYU, in a recent Atlantic article. “A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.”

Lukianoff and Haidt argue that college students’ sensitivities towards “microaggressions” and “trigger warnings” hurt students more than they protect them. According to the writers, the consequences of this hypersensitivity to discriminatory, provoking or controversial comments include an increasingly polarized political field, a workplace marred by constant litigation and a generation of new graduates unable to learn from those with whom they disagree.

In the past, the ACLU has defended the First Amendment rights of those who engage in offensive or bigoted speech, such as in Terminiello v. Chicago, the 1949 landmark case that ruled banning controversial or inciting speech to be unconstitutional.

Instead of imposing speech codes on the student body, the ACLU recommends on its webpage that campus administrators speak out against expression of bias and create an educational environment that “includes counter-speech, workshops on bigotry and its role in American and world history, and real—not superficial—institutional change.”

To organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a Jewish group that seeks to counter anti-Semitic and bigoted speech and actions, speech codes inhibit education only when they are overly broad.

According to the ADL’s website, “Abusive words aimed at aspects of a person’s core identity can seriously wound and particularly damage young people in the process of figuring our their own identity during college.”

ADL’s website suggests that universities enact more specific speech codes and policies that clearly separate speech used in the class with speech used in common areas and resident halls. They also suggest increasing penalties for alcohol related hate speech. If university administrators stay silent in the face of bigotry and discrimination, the ADL warns, students may feel increasingly marginalized and compelled to drop out of a school where they feel they do not belong.

To Zywicki, hate speech is an inconsequential concept, one impossible to identify with a clear definition, and thus, impossible to combat with a definite policy.

“‘Hate’ speech is just a conclusory term attached to speech that someone doesn’t like,” Zywicki said. “I really don’t agree with the patronizing idea that there are certain people whose sensitivities are so profound that they get special protection from getting their feelings hurt. Personally abusive or personally harassment [language] is a different matter, of course.”

Meghann Hansen, a psychology major, agrees with this sentiment, although with some reservations.

“Political correctness has taken over our society because individuals feel like they are entitled to the respect of everyone around them when respect should actually be seen as a two-way street,” Hansen said.

For campus groups like Intervarsity, a Christian fellowship organization, new policies might make it easier for the group to pursue its goals of ministry and spreading knowledge of Jesus.

“It’s really exciting because we can definitely encourage a lot more deeper conversations around campus,” said Joshua Anderson, a cyber security engineering major and member of Intervarsity, after hearing of Mason’s new policy. “Our whole goal is to have everybody learn about Jesus and what he’s done for us so knowing we can have those opportunities now, more than before, that’s a godsend in and of itself.”

After almost ten years of work and an overhaul of Mason’s freedom of expression policies, Zywicki believes the work is not over yet.

“Now of course the important thing is not to backslide. For example, James Madison had a green light rating for many years but recently changed its policies to a more restrictive policy and has lost that distinction,” Zywicki said. “It is now up to all of us—faculty, students, and staff—to remain vigilant to make sure that George Mason stands on its principles and doesn’t backslide.”