Copyright USA Today Information Network
Nov 3, 2003
Most college presidents argue that their
campuses and classrooms encourage the free exchange of ideas.
Where else but here, they say, can difficult issues be
But as campus officials look for ways to
accommodate the growing diversity of their student bodies, an
increasingly vocal number of students -- most of them white
and predominantly conservative or Christian -- say there is
little room for their opinions and beliefs.
On campuses large and small, public and
private, students describe a culture in which freshmen are
encouraged, if not required, to attend diversity programs that
portray white males as oppressors. It's a culture in which
students can be punished if their choice of words offends a
classmate, and campus groups must promise they won't
discriminate on the basis of religion or sexual orientation --
even if theirs is a Christian club that doesn't condone
Colleges "seek to privilege one predominantly
leftist point of view," says Thor Halvorssen of the Foundation
for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a
Philadelphia-based non-profit founded four years ago.
"Universities should welcome all perspectives, no matter where
on the political spectrum."
Increasingly, with financial and legal
backing from a loose national network of conservative,
religious and civil liberties groups, those students are
In April, two students sued Shippensburg
University in Shippensburg, Pa., arguing that several parts of
the school's conduct code and diversity policies intimidated
them into keeping silent about their conservative politics and
beliefs. Since then, other students have sued Texas Tech
University in Lubbock and a California community college. All
three lawsuits are part of FIRE's campaign to abolish campus
Christian student groups also have gone to
court on similar First Amendment grounds, the most recent case
filed last month against the University of Minnesota.
On about 90 campuses, meanwhile, students
have joined Students for Academic Freedom, created four months
ago by leftist turned conservative activist David Horowitz.
They argue that campuses are overwhelmingly liberal and demand
that administrations seek a more balanced point of view among
faculty and in programs such as lecture series.
On some campuses, specific incidents have
prompted an uproar. A senior at California Polytechnic State
University-San Luis Obispo sued campus officials in September,
on a claim that he was unfairly punished after he tried to
post a flier promoting a speech by a black author whose
conservative ideas a group of black students found offensive.
At Citrus College in California, a speech instructor offered
extra credit to students if they wrote to President Bush
protesting the war in Iraq.
But many students, like recent Shippensburg
University graduate Ellen Wray, say they are simply frustrated
by policies that dismiss or ignore conservative points of
"I wanted to help all the students that felt
oppressed like I did," says Wray, 22, who sued the school.
"All my professors were liberal except one, and he retired the
first year I was there." After professors belittled her, "I
finally just stopped raising my hand." She works for a
Republican organization in Washington, D.C.
The issue is gaining traction beyond campus
borders. Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill that would
encourage colleges to ensure "intellectual diversity" -- that
is, that all viewpoints are represented. Nationally, nearly 20
House Republicans co-sponsored a similar bill introduced last
week. A Senate education committee is looking into the
Higher-education officials balk at the notion
of lawmakers meddling with faculty or campus decisions. "For
every anecdote on one side of the political spectrum, there
can be found an anecdote on the other," says Jonathan Knight,
a spokesman with the American Association of University
Few dispute the notion that faculty tend to
be liberal as a group -- certainly more liberal than many of
their students. Shippensburg draws most of its student body
from largely Republican central Pennsylvania. And a survey out
this month by Harvard's Institute of Politics found that 38%
of students identify themselves as independents, compared with
31% Republican and 27% Democrats.
Some professors stress that part of their job
is to challenge students to question their beliefs. "We're in
the business of helping people become critical thinkers," says
Shippensburg sociology professor Debra Cornelius. Though she
acknowledges her own liberal politics, she says, "We on a
daily basis struggle with . . . making sure people behave in a
tolerant way (without) chilling speech."
But those who see a bias in higher education
say the public has a right to know what goes on inside the
"Legislators, taxpayers, tuition payers, and
donors have no idea what their dollars are underwriting," says
Luann Wright, the parent of a senior at the University of
California-San Diego. So outraged was she by her son's 2001
freshman writing syllabus -- "basically the whole thrust was
on the toxicity of the white race," she says -- that she
created a non-profit Web site (noindoctrination.org) where
students can anonymously post incidents of bias on their
Conservative students aren't the only ones
feeling pinched. In May, Wesleyan University President Douglas
Bennet banned a long- standing tradition, particularly popular
among gay rights groups, of writing messages in chalk on
sidewalks. Some faculty were targeted by name, and
increasingly vulgar obscenities, sexual and racial slurs had
But the most well-oiled attack is driven by
conservative and Christian students, "who basically feel
they're targets for getting their minds dry-cleaned to think
the right way," says Jordan Lorence, a litigator for the
Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona Christian organization
involved in several lawsuits.
Speech codes and other restrictions became
popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s as campuses looked
for ways to address the growing number of racial minorities on
campus, along with concerns about sexual harassment. By the
mid-1990s, after several courts ruled that certain campus
speech bans were unconstitutional, many schools withdrew those
Since then, racial slurs and other incidents
have persisted. In 2001, the latest year for which statistics
are available, the FBI received 987 reports of hate crimes and
incidents at schools and college campuses -- about 10% of all
hate incidents that year.
And "the level of discourse in the outside
world has become more confrontational," says Roger Williams
University Provost Edward Kavanagh, whose Bristol, R.I.,
campus temporarily froze funding for a College Republicans
newspaper this month. Kavanagh objected to its Sept. 30
edition, which featured a series of articles opposed to
homosexuality, including a description of a crime in which a
seventh- grade boy was raped and sodomized. He vowed to
strengthen oversight of future publications.
But junior Jason Mattera, 20, an editor of
the paper, says, "You're not automatically a bigot if you
don't agree with (homosexuality). What they're essentially
doing is silencing the only conservative voice here on
The administrative response is typical, some
say. Indeed, many schools, including the University of
Virginia and Harvard Law School, created task forces in the
past year in response to similar incidents on their
In the process, says David French, the lawyer
representing the Shippensburg students, speech codes have
reappeared -- though often disguised as anti-harassment
statements or non-discrimination policies.
Today, FIRE estimates that two-thirds of
colleges have speech codes. Other experts disagree: In a
recent study of 100 randomly selected institutions, George
Mason University professor Jon Gould found that 30% of
institutions have a policy that restricts hate speech, but
less than 10% would be unconstitutional.
Campuses say civility is the goal
Campus officials say their goal is not to
stifle students but to promote civil discourse. "What we
attempt to do is try to create a civil democracy, where
everybody is respected," Shippensburg President Anthony Ceddia
Since 1990, he says, the campus has pledged a
commitment to racial tolerance, cultural diversity and social
justice, and since 2000, it has required students to take a
course that meets a diversity requirement. Students also are
strongly encouraged to attend university-funded "Art of Being"
programs, which highlight a particular culture -- Jewish,
African-American and Asian-American were among those offered
Some students welcome the programs. In a
column in the student newspaper, opinion editor Christopher
Kirkhoff lauded Ceddia for "stressing the danger of prejudice
and the administration's intolerance" for homophobia, which he
said "is running rampant on this campus."
But French says that, taken together, a
number of Shippensburg's campus policies, while never
enforced, dampened his clients' ability to express themselves.
One sentence in the conduct code, for example, suggests that
student expression should not "provoke, harass, intimidate or
harm" another. But "if you're part of an intellectual
minority, it's difficult for your speech not to provoke," he
The Bush administration, too, has weighed in.
Key officials notified colleges and universities in August
that federal civil rights regulations "do not require or
prescribe speech, conduct, or harassment codes that impair the
exercise of rights protected under the First Amendment."
For now, at least, the courts appear to side
with the students. A U.S. district judge ruled last year that
a policy at the University of Houston unfairly gave
administrators "unfettered discretion" in deciding what events
could be held outside designated speech zones on campus. In
June, administrators said they would drop some restrictions
and pay $93,000 in attorneys' fees to settle a lawsuit by
student abortion protesters.
And in September, a U.S. district judge said
Shippensburg's conduct codes, though well-intentioned, "could
certainly be used to truncate debate and free expression by
students." He encouraged campus administrators to revise seven
sentences in their policies.
The anti-speech-code crowd hopes the momentum
will continue as more students join the fight. "Now they know
they can win," FIRE's Halvorssen says.
But for their part, some students say they
have more modest goals. "I'm not looking to pick a fight,"
says Joe Jones, 22, a senior at the University of North
Carolina at Chapel Hill and member of a Christian group. "I
want the freedom to say what I want to say."
TEXT OF INFO BOX BEGINS HERE
Where controversies have erupted
University of California, Berkeley. In a
catalog description last year for a course on the "politics
and poetics of Palestinian resistance," the graduate student
instructor warned that "conservative thinkers are encouraged
to seek other sections." The description was rewritten, and
administrators assured students they could indeed speak their
* University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. A
student group for Christians sued the school over its
requirement that student groups sign a statement that they are
open to all students regardless of religion, marital status or
* University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. A
student was urged in June to remove a Confederate flag from a
hallway in his dorm after a parent complained. Officials said
the flag could violate a policy being drafted. In protest,
other students displayed U.S. flags in their windows.
Officials have since "tabled indefinitely" the policy,
spokesman Cathy Andreen says.
* University of Washington, Seattle. An
"affirmative action bake sale" was cut short after drawing a
crowd of about 200, some of them disruptive. The College
Republican sponsors charged black students 30 cents, Latinos
35 cents and white students $1 for the same item. The Board of
Regents later condemned the sale as "tasteless, divisive and
hurtful." Organizers say campus police told them to shut it
down; officials say the students agreed to end it.
* Whittier College, Whittier, Calif. After
students launched a conservative newspaper in April, they were
told they needed permission from a campus board before
publishing again. When they sought approval, they found that
the board was inactive. The students say four other
publications had not been asked to register.
Source: USA TODAY research
|PHOTO, Color, Tim Dillon, USA TODAY;
PHOTOS, B/W, Tim Dillon, USA TODAY (2); Caption: Dissent
silenced? Jason Mattera of Roger Williams University saw
his newspaper's funding frozen over controversial
articles. Academic Bill of Rights": Rep. Jack Kingston,
R-Ga., right, introduced the bill in October. At left is
student Jason Mattera."I stopped raising my hand": Ellen
Wray says Shippensburg University professors belittled