Article: Crack Down on Free Speech, Federal Bureaucrats Tell University

Remember when government agencies proclaimed their devotion to American values like independence and the right to speak your mind freely? Ah, those were the days… but no sense living in the past. Nowadays, you’re far more likely to find federal agencies trying to force U.S. educators into combatting outbreaks of outmoded ideas like the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech on campus.

The Censorship of Federal Education Funding

Impossible, you say? Apparently, you haven’t been keeping up with the thinking at the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, which is responsible for enforcing Title IX, a law aimed at fighting sex discrimination in education. The agency frequently indulges its penchant for issuing “guidelines” telling educators what they need to do towards that aim. If DOE finds a school not towing the line on Title IX, it can cut off federal funds (a very effective way to gain educators’ attention).

Remarkably, the DOE anti-bias squad now apparently feels its mission includes forcing college administrators to regulate what students can say to one another. And, DOE’s wily bureaucrats aren’t undertaking that mission all by themselves: they’ve enlisted the help of the Department of Justice.

Free Speech On Campus Under Fire

To aid DOE in its campaign to keep higher education bias-free, even if that requires trampling constitutional free-speech rights, DOJ recently sent the University of New Mexico a 37-page letter from its top educational civil rights official and the head of its New Mexico office.

Claiming authority under both Title IX and Title IV of the same education law, which bars sex, race, religion, color, and national origin discrimination against students in public schools, the bureaucrats demanded the school label as sexual harassment all “unwelcome” sexual conduct, with the school encouraging students to file complaints, which the school would then dutifully investigate.

You would be wrong, however, to assume the demand was limited to physical conduct. In DOE and DOJ’s expansive reading, the university must police not just that, but also what the feds call “verbal conduct” – what civilians might call speech.

Note that exactly what kind of speech the university must control, according to DOE-DOJ, lacks any objective standard. It’s not what would offend the reasonable student or administrator. Instead, the new gold standard for university action is whether a remark, invitation or argument is “unwelcome” to a listener.

Are The Feds Going Too Far?

Remember those old ideas about college being a place where students have freedom to explore ideas, and the First Amendment protecting even controversial or provocative utterances as long as they don’t pose imminent danger (like shouting “fire” in a crowded theater)? Forget that outdated stuff, the feds are now telling schools, “your job is to police and prosecute anything that gives offense.”

In effect, they’re demanding schools act as speech police ensuring no one has his or her tender sensibilities offended, even if that means ignoring long-established rights to speak one’s mind or talk with other students. Without first having to clear it with Big Brother. Hard to see what could go wrong with that.