The Speech Codes That Have Brought Back the Guillotine

This morning Harvey Silverglate, the renowned attorney and co-founder of  FIRE, ( The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) published a disturbing op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled  Liberals Are Killing the Liberal Arts.  In it he relates an incident at Smith College in Massachusetts  in which dyed-in-the-wool liberal Wendy Kaminer was hosed down and  hung out to dry  for her defense of freedom of speech.  Kaminer was speaking on a panel, chaired by the college’s president Kathleen McCartney titled Challenging the Ideological Echo Chamber: Free Speech, Civil Discourse and the Liberal Arts, ” designed to address the growing  intolerance for diverse opinions on campus. When Kaminer forcefully propounded the idea that speech codes have eviscerated the entire notion of free speech and used  as an example how the word ” nigger” in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, had become abbreviated in modern editions of the 130 -year-old text, she was attacked as a racist and later excoriated as having violated one of the campuses most sacred speech codes.

President McCartney felt obliged a few weeks later to issue an apology to all who had been offended.

As Silverglate makes clear, this was not an isolated incident but is the kind of denunciatory rhetoric which is appearing all over the country in our universities to prevent discussion about unpopular topics. Climate Change “Deniers”, Intelligent design advocates, military spokesmen, anyone critical of Islam and others are routinely torched by the same flame throwers.  It is as if the Klu Klux Klan has invaded the University and in the process of ensuring that no one offends anybody else, is making absolutely sure that nobody actually speaks to anybody else.

What Kaminer and other liberals like her are finding is that the very podium of free speech upon which they have been standing for generations, hurling their thunderbolts at the establishment, is now being burned from under them.  Speech codes, designed to address sensitivities of minorities are now being used to silence just about anyone.

Silverglate wisely surmises in his final paragraph:

Hypersensitivity to the trauma allegedly inflicted by listening to controversial ideas approaches a strange form of derangement—a disorder whose lethal spread in academia grows by the day. What should be the object of derision, a focus for satire, is instead the subject of serious faux academic discussion and precautionary warnings. For this disorder there is no effective quarantine. A whole generation of students soon will have imbibed the warped notions of justice and entitlement now handed down as dogma in the universities.”

The tragedy for the new guardians of minority sensitivities is that one day the revolution they have set in motion will consume them as well –  regardless of their ideological purity.  For suddenly they will find that the very words and terms they have always used to advance their causes are somehow susceptible to charges of hatred, racism or offense to an even smaller minority of complainers and litigants  – who will shut them down just as effectively as they are shutting down their own adversaries today.

It has all happened before of course.  Who can forget how the French, increasingly radicalized following the storming of the Bastille in 1789, set upon each other and destroyed the very principles and ideals upon which their revolution had been founded?  Perhaps the Guillotine may no longer stand in Paris’ Place de la Concorde.  But who can deny that  its modern day equivalent reigns, as a symbol of intellectual terror and intimidation, in almost all our modern universities today?


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