Political Correctness Challenges Campus Free Speech

Sep 27, 2015

Know the joke about how many college students it takes to screw in a light bulb?

Probably not, since it’s not a real joke. Nor is the decision some comedians are making to avoid college campuses where they say students today are too easily offended.

Back in June, comedian Jerry Seinfeld told ESPN radio that he was joining Chris Rock, Larry the Cable Guy and others who won’t play college campuses because they’ve become too politically correct.

“I hear that all the time," Seinfeld told ESPN Radio.  "I don’t play colleges, but I hear a lot of people tell me don’t go near colleges — they’re so PC.”

Seinfeld shared his own daughter’s take on the environment on college campuses.

“They just want to use these words —‘That’s racist. That’s sexist. That’s prejudiced,’” he told radio host Colin Cowherd.

Comedians who won’t perform at college campuses is not one of the most burning issues facing education today. But since universities are seen as places where students are challenged with new ideas, and new ways of thinking, this political correctness may be threatening other kinds of free speech.

The Foundation of Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a non-profit, non-partisan group created to defend civil liberties at colleges, created a free-speech rating system of more than 400 schools nationwide.

Will Creeley, the group’s vice president of legal and public advocacy, said the system ranks campuses on a traffic signal model. A green light means the institution has open and free speech, a yellow light means not enough or vague rules about speech and a red light means a school has at least one policy that they say is restrictive.

Here’s a list of the scores.

Creeley uses the University of Central Florida in Orlando as an example. In Spring 2013, professor Hyung-il Jung was suspended for three weeks after making an in-class joke.

“He was leading a review session for his 25 students in an accounting course, and he noticed that their attention was starting to flag. And he said to the class, ‘This next question is very difficult. It looks like you guys are being slowly suffocated by these questions. Am I on a killing spree, or what?’ ”

Twenty-four students knew Jung was joking, but one filed a complaint.

UCF ordered Jung to undergo a mental health evaluation before he would be allowed to return to teaching. After a petition from almost 500 students and the threat of a lawsuit from FIRE, the professor was reinstated.

Jung declined an interview request, but said in an email, “I have decided to remain silent, making no comments for many different reasons, at least for a while."

Creeley said first amendment attorneys call this the ‘chilling effect’ on free speech.

“Once you’ve been investigated, threatened with discipline, put through the ringer for telling a joke, you very rationally might decide that you better keep your mouth shut next time,” he said.

David Thompson is a college freshman and a member of the Student Government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. He said complaints from students do get a lot of attention.

“I think just in the way media works, that when somebody makes a big protest about something that that’s what’s going to be heard," Thompson said.  "I think it’s really only offensive if somebody’s telling you that this is what you need to believe, or that this is an accurate depiction of you.”

In recent years, media have covered student protests of commencement speakers such as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, comedian Bill Maher, and others refusing assigned reading because of objectionable content like a depiction of rape.

“Increasingly, FIRE is worried that students are demanding a kind of intellectual comfort rather than the thrill and productive challenge of going outside of their own known experience," Creeley said.

"We have a saying here at FIRE. If you go to school for four years and aren’t once offended you should ask for your money back.”

William Felice, associate dean and a professor at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, said colleges and universities do have a responsibility to protect students, to a point.

“We are past book burning when students come here, from day one we say to them you’re going to be exposed to different material and you may not like it," Felice said.  "It may be uncomfortable, but that’s part of what the education process is about.”

He said there’s reason behind pushing students.

"Our goal is to teach students to critically think and become good citizens as a result, able to contribute to public policy, able to sort out the difference between demagoguery and punditry and reasoned argument," Felice said.  "That's really what we're about."