This article was originally published in the Roanoke Times & World News on April 9, 1991, under the all-caps headline "DON'T LET THE FEDS BE THOUGHT POLICE." It was written in response to legislation that had been introduced by long-time Congressman Henry Hyde, who died in 2007 after 32 years representing Illinois's sixth congressional district.
I AM AS close to a free-speech absolutist as anyone can imagine. I believe that the survival of a liberal, democratic society depends on broad application of First Amendment protections for speech, assembly, religion and the press.
Collegiate Speech Protection Act of 1991. The act would prohibit any private college or university that accepts federal money from making or enforcing "any rule subjecting any student to disciplinary action solely on the basis of speech or other communication" that the First Amendment normally protects from government restrictions.
One impetus for Hyde's bill was Brown University's expulsion of a student for shouting anti-Semitic, anti-gay and anti-black epithets in a college courtyard in the middle of the night. This incident has been widely misinterpreted as punishment for the student's speech or ideas, rather than his rude and uncivil behavior. On other campuses, sanctions have been used against students and faculty for the expression of "politically incorrect" ideas.
Hyde relates his bill to the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987, which says the federal government can regulate any and all aspects of a college's operations if it accepts federal funds directly (in the form of research grants, for instance) or indirectly (by accepting tuition payments from students receiving federal scholarship aid).
Under these criteria, only Grove City College in Pennsylvania and Hillsdale College in Michigan would be exempt from the new law; they alone refuse, as a matter of principle, to take financial aid from the U.S. government.
The First Amendment does not prohibit private individuals or entities -- parents, corporations, churches, fraternal associations, colleges or newspaper publishers -- from restricting speech or expression of those in their employ or under their contol. It only applies to government.
Speech-suppression codes, now all the rage on U.S. campuses, are generally a bad idea. They are broadly and vaguely written, poorly administered, and serve to undermine the very cause they seek to advance -- deterring speech and behavior offensive to minorities defined by race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. Moreover, the codes inhibit robust discussion of controversial and discomforting thoughts in the environment best suited for free-wheeling discourse.
Far worse than well-intentioned but nebulous standards of "political correctness," however, is the idea of extending the reach of the federal government to regulate the content of speech at private educational institutions.
Non-public colleges and universities are private, voluntary associations that should be able to set their own standards of civility and demarcate their own boundaries of acceptable behavior. Their members -- students, faculty and staff -- are free to leave if they disagree with those standards.
A "religious exemption" in Hyde's bill for denominational colleges acknowledges this, but too narrowly. Why should a church-related college be allowed, say, to prohibit a public lecture on the theory of evolution while a non-sectarian institution, no doubt animated by an integrated educational philosophy all its own, be barred by law from prohibiting a lecture on creationism?
We should not expand the realm of government interference in the private lives of citizens and their freely formed associations. The only thing more fearsome than self-anointed campus leaders taking on the raiments of thought police is federal bureaucrats doing the same.
AUTHOR NOTE: Richard E. Sincere Jr. is an Arlington writer and member of the Libertarian Party of Virginia.