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Sticks and Stones
By Kate Burch

Living or working on today’s college campus must be, for one who is not a member of a protected group, something like navigating a mine field.  One may, while totally lacking malevolent intent, commit a “microaggression” or otherwise be guilty of insulting or disparaging, or even “harassing” another by simply offering a compliment or remarking about an interesting characteristic of someone—if the other person perceives it, or claims to perceive it, as disparaging or somehow threatening.  A professor in Louisiana was fired recently for alleged sexual harassment because she used off-color humor.  At the University of Kentucky one may be, I read, subject to investigation if accused of making critical remarks about a smoker.

I am willing to bet that white, middle-class students, particularly males, are seldom if ever going to be the beneficiaries of official policies that punish someone who may have hurt their feelings.  They, after all, are “privileged” and deserve to be taken down a peg or two.  

Such stifling of free speech and expression may at last—we may dare to hope--have peaked.  According to “FIRE” (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), the proportion of public colleges with speech codes that ban constitutionally protected speech has dropped significantly.  Unfortunately, the schools with these “red light” speech codes still constitute almost 40% of public colleges.  The situation at private colleges is somewhat worse, since they are permitted under the law to restrict speech, not being bound by the First Amendment!  A number of schools have even established reporting systems that encourage students to report on other students and faculty members who show “bias” in their speech or expression.

We are permitted to criticize and disparage people in public life, and those who go into politics or become celebrities must accept that being targets of such criticism is just part of the life.  When people in public life, however, disparage ordinary people, as did Hillary Clinton in her famous characterization of Trump supporters as “deplorables,”  it is clearly unacceptable, and that remark certainly wounded her and her chances of prevailing at the polls. 

Restriction of free speech is harmful when it is used, not as a reasonable guarantor of public safety, but in support of the political cause du jour, to protect a favored group, or to further an ideological agenda.  When it gets really dicey is when one may not speak the truth about an actual threat or real harm to the public safety, because of “political correctness.”  The recent example of the radicalized Somali immigrant student at Ohio State who attempted to kill other students by running them down with his car and slashing and stabbing them with a knife, is illustrative.  A student journalist who had interviewed this radical Islamist and written about his “soft-spoken” and “friendly” manner despite his feeling at risk of attack for practicing his religion, wrote after the mayhem of November 28 that the student, Abdul Artan, must have “snapped” due to the Islamophobic attitudes of the Ohio State student body.   Josh Earnest,  the president’s press secretary, expressed similar ideas.   Another example is the official designation of the Fort Hood massacre as “workplace violence” when it was clearly a terrorist attack by a radicalized Islamic extremist who wanted to kill infidels.  Abundantly documented, but still denied by officials. 

Censorship has been a useful tool of tyrants since people began organizing governments.  The First Amendment was a tremendously liberating law, one of the most effective ways of getting people out from under the yoke of oppressive government.  Why, now, are people insisting on imposing censorship? 

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