by Benny Huang Feb 12, 2016
“It’s illegal to offend people,” said the UT-Austin police officer to a Christian evangelist. The officer then proceeded to write the evangelist a citation. Yes, that actually happened in America. Thankfully, the citation was later voided and the officer received re-training.
The event occurred just off campus where two evangelists were preaching against homosexuality. According to the police officer, a student complained that he was being “verbally harassed” which in fact he was not. The whiney student, if he exists at all, was simply being exposed to words and ideas that offended him. The accusation of “verbal harassment” is the authoritarian censor’s primary weapon against our constitutional rights.
Three officers responded to the call (three!) and together the five of them then proceeded to have a conversation that was cordial but nonetheless alarming. Most of the conversation occurred between an evangelist named Joshua Borchert and a certain Officer Wormsley, who proceeded to inform Borchert that he had a duty to enforce the law; and the law, according to Wormsley, is that any speech that offends anyone is illegal. He’s apparently never heard of this other law called the US Constitution.
“We had somebody that was offended by the gestures that you were making,” said Wormsley. “And that’s our job is to make sure that that doesn’t happen because these are students that’s walking in this mall right here. I know you’re not on campus. But you’re right off campus offending students on the campus. So the job here is to write you up as a citation, disorderly conduct, for offending someone.”
Officer Wormsley later conferred with another officer, saying: “He indicates that it’s [his] first amendment, he can say what he wants, freedom of speech, but that’s not what the law says. The law says, I mean, if you offend somebody, if they want to press charges, you can’t do that.”
Perhaps the most terrifying part in the video is when Borchert asked the three police officers if they have ever issued citations for the “crime” of causing offense. “Yes,” said one cop. “Oh yes,” said another. When Borchert asked what fine the judge might impose the officer replied: “We write so many, I can’t answer that question for you.” That alone should tell you that this is not an isolated incident.
Nor is it confined to UT-Austin. Across the fruited plain, on campuses both public and private, universities strictly regulate student speech. The first amendment watchdog group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) annually rates colleges on their free speech policies using a color-coded system. A green rating means that a college adheres to constitutional free speech protections, a yellow light means that a school has at least one ambiguous policy that encourages abuse and arbitrary application, and a red light means that a school blatantly violates its students’ rights. UT-Austin received a red rating in FIRE’s most recent report, as did 49.3 percent of the 440 campuses studied. Only 5 percent got a green rating.
I wish I could say that I’m shocked by this but I’m not. College campuses are hostile environments for all of our first amendment rights but especially to our right to free speech. It wasn’t that long ago when I was studying at a large public university where I witnessed with my own eyes an utter disregard for freedom of speech. Within my first few weeks at the University of Massachusetts I was stunned to see a list of banned words hanging in a dormitory. This isn’t Communist China, I thought; public universities can’t just ban words. Oh but they do.
The list was composed entirely of “homophobic” slurs, including one which I hadn’t previously known to be “homophobic” at all. That word was “buttmunch,” which I had never before associated with homosexuals. I have since learned that munching butt is a common practice among male homosexuals which explains why they suffer from so many intestinal parasites. They eat a lot of feces, you know? So I learned something new that day—I’m not allowed to say “buttmunch” because it offends people who munch butt.
But really, who are they to tell me what words I may use? “Homophobic” slurs are absolutely covered by the first amendment, full stop. The whole purpose of the first amendment is to protect offensive speech. But alas, UMass received a red rating from FIRE and for good reason; it’s basically a gulag on a picturesque New England campus.
It’s important to note however that the campus authoritarians are not just cops and administrators. The students are cool with being told what to say and they won’t hesitate to rat you out for thought crimes. Censorship is accepted practice and no one bats an eyelash. A McLaughlin & Associates survey of college students completed in 2015 found that 51 percent of students favored campus speech codes while a mere 36 percent dissented. Thirty-five percent said that the Constitution does not protect “hate speech,” an imprecise term that basically means whatever liberals hate hearing. Among self-described liberals 30 percent said that the first amendment was “outdated.”
Free speech is all too often perceived as a shield for bigots to hide behind—which it is, of course, though I don’t mean to imply that everyone accused of bigotry by the campus authoritarians is guilty as charged. “Bigotry” is an all-purpose word used to describe Orwellian thought crimes, most of which are not bigoted at all. It nonetheless protects authentic bigotry too. There’s absolutely no need to parse out the difference between genuine bigoted speech and non-bigoted speech because both are constitutionally protected. Yet campus authoritarians don’t want anyone to have a shield to protect themselves so they attempt to delegitimize first amendment protections as somehow cowardly; as if standing against majority opinion doesn’t take guts. “Quit hiding behind the first amendment!” they shout. Why the heck shouldn’t someone hide behind the first amendment? That’s what it’s for—protection.
Part of the reason that censorship is so rampant on college campuses is that people are by nature selfish. They want protection for themselves but won’t extend it to others. The average campus liberal doesn’t appreciate the value of free speech because it never occurs to him that he might someday be the purveyor of an unpopular idea. In all likelihood, he never will need constitutional protections because, by the standards of his campus, he is in fact a very conventional thinker. He is a member of the “in group” who feels entitled to gag the “out group.”
He reasons, not incorrectly, that censorship only affects the other guy. But he errs in assuming that it only affects bad people with very wrong ideas. In this regard he shares a lot in common with the seventeenth century Catholic theologian Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, a very intolerant member of the French aristocracy who once said: “I have the right to persecute you because I am right and you are wrong.”
That type of thinking was common in Europe before the Enlightenment but it’s anathema to the ideals that America was founded upon. Granted, America has often failed to live up to those ideals, from Comstockery to official censorship during the Civil War and both world wars, if only because ideals are things we strive for even when they are not perfectly achieved.
But we aren’t even striving for that ideal anymore; at least not on college campuses. The very notion that people can just speak their minds is considered dangerous in and of itself. It’s a thought too scary for a generation raised in safe zones to contemplate. Ideas must be controlled!
My only hope is that the Constitution will protect us and someday this will all be straightened out, perhaps by some watershed court decision. But I doubt it. Our constitutional rights are only as good as the public officials who interpret and enforce them. I have little faith that tomorrow’s judges, cops, and college administrators will allow the first amendment to be anything more than dead words on a page, hypocritically maintained in theory while endlessly violated in practice. After all, the students who clamor for “safe spaces” today will someday be the public officials whose job it is to safeguard our freedoms. This is truly the first authoritarian generation reared on American soil. Should they fail to mature in their appreciation for the first amendment our freedom will be lost.
Benny Huang is a lonely conservative in the very liberal Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts. He strives to make the world a better place through his writing. He is a veteran.