©2014 Kenneth N. Margolin
Many colleges and universities incorporate into their codes of conduct notions of desired behavior that can lead to injustice when breach of the code result in disciplinary action. Common to repressive college conduct codes is the desire for none to be offended on a college campus. A principle of guaranteed freedom from offense is antithetical to the core mission of the university as a place where young adults go to be intellectually challenged, to learn how to think and to express their own values and ideas. For this analysis of a poor college conduct code, I have chosen the code of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. I use the code posted on the university’s web site, and will assume for the purposes of this analysis that the university posting is accurate. The UMass. code is fairly typical of college disciplinary codes that turn politically incorrect expressions into punishable offenses.
Problems with the UMass. Code of Student Conduct begin with the first sentence of Section V.A, “Regulations for Student Conduct and Scholarship:” Students are “expected to be honest and respectful in all of their interactions with the administration, faculty, staff and students of the University.” (emphasis supplied). The dictate is repeated at Section V.B., “Civility, Safety, and Environmental Health:” “ ... Students are expected to demonstrate their respect for all members of our richly diverse community.” Before considering when students may appropriately be disrespectful without the fear of college Big Brother controlling their speech, it is important to decide what is meant by “respectful.” The Code of Conduct provides no definition, leaving resort to the dictionary as the best source of the word’s meaning. College administrators must be held to a precise use of language when their words impact the lives of their students. Appropriately, I use the American Heritage College Dictionary, Fourth Edition. “Respectful” is simply “Showing or marked by proper respect.” “Respect” is: “1. To feel or show deferential regard for ; esteem. 2. The state of being regarded with honor or esteem. 3. Willingness to show consideration or appreciation.” (emphasis supplied).
Assuming that institutions of higher learning should be centers for the robust exchange of ideas, out of which may occasionally arise independent thinkers, let us imagine some scenarios in which a student may be considered disrespectful and thus in violation of the Code of Conduct. Take the emotionally loaded issue of the Israel-Palestine conflict. If a professor preaches – as many have – that Israeli settlement building is the cause of the continued conflict, may a student vigorously differ or must disagreement be in muted tones? If the student’s voice shakes with outrage and he tells the professor in front of the class – “to blame Israel and only Israel for the conflict is anti-semitic, professor. If you believe that only Israel creates the problem, then you are anti-semitic” – has that student been deferential? Has he held the professor in honor or esteem? Certainly not. He disagreed. He challenged. He was provactive, though not nearly as provactive as he may have been. Do we want a campus at which the rebuffed professor can bring the student up on charges for failing to treat him with respect?
Imagine a religiously fundamentalist Catholic male or female student in a class on Feminist Theory in the University of Massachusetts Women’s Studies department. “The girls in this class,” says the student, “don’t seem to understand that God made the sexes different and that the woman’s most important role in life is to bear children, to raise them, and to maintain a household. America has been in moral decline since women decided to act like men.” Has that student “demonstrate[d] respect for all members of our richly diverse community?” Can one imagine a student in the Feminist Theory class complaining to college administrators that they felt demeaned and disrespected by their fellow student, and is it conceivable that the student would be charged with violating the college Conduct Code? Such charges have been brought numerous times on various college campuses. Yet, what did the student do, other than to express his or her perspective, now considered repulsive by many, that the conventional wisdom about gender roles is harmful and should be reconsidered?
The University of Massachusetts Code of Conduct, similarly to other excessively controlling codes, poses the greatest risk to justice and common sense in the area of sexual harassment. Without question, sexual harassment can damage the college experience of its victims, and must be taken seriously. Too many colleges, however, regrettably aided by missives from the federal Department of Education, have created a witch hunt atmosphere whenever a charge of sexual harassment is levied. Students can be charged with serious disciplinary infractions for conduct that may be little more than bad taste or poor judgment, and in some cases for First Amendment protected speech. The UMass. Code of Conduct includes in its definition of “sexual harassment,” “verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature ... when ... such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s performance by creating an intimidating, hostile or sexually offensive educational, residential, working or academic environment.” That may sound reasonable until one reads on to the examples of sexual harassment, which can include “sexual flirtations, display of sexually suggestive pictures, posters or cartoons,” and “jokes, language, epithets or remarks of a sexual nature.” (emphasis supplied). The college attempts to leaven the standard by requiring that conduct or words, in order to constitute harassment, must be objectively as well as subjectively offensive. The problem is that what is objectively offensive will be decided by a college disciplinary board populated by individuals taught or predisposed to flinch or run for cover at the slightest hint of politically incorrect words. Moreover, some free thinkers intentionally use language, including language of a sexual nature, that offends, as a form of social or political commentary.
Take the Conduct Code’s forbidden unwanted jokes of a sexual nature that are subjectively and objectively offensive. In the student lounge, a student who despises language she considers demeaning to women overhears a male student holding court to a group of fellow students. She notes that he is making no effort to keep his voice down despite her presence and the presence of other women nearby. This is what the male student says:
That's where the conflict starts. We all want for a wife a combination Sunday school teacher and a $500-a-night hooker. I sort of feel sorry for damned flies. They never hurt anybody. Even though they’re supposed to carry diseases, I never heard of anybody saying they caught something from a fly. My cousin gave two guys the clap and nobody ever whacked her with a paper. The only truly anonymous donor is the guy who knocks up your daughter. You put a guy on a desert island, he'll do it to mud, a chicken, a barrel, anything, a knothole.
To her revulsion, a second male student laughs raucously as he tells another student:
It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to piss off a feminist. All you gotta do is run into NOW headquarters or Ms. magazine and say, "hey, which one of you cute little cupcakes wants to come home and cook me a nice meal and give me a blowjob!" I don’t understand why prostitution is illegal. Why should prostitution be illegal? Selling is legal. Fucking is legal. Why isn't selling fucking legal? You know, why should it be illegal to sell something that's perfectly legal to give away. I can't follow the logic on that at all. Of all the things you can do to a person, giving someone an orgasm is hardly the worst thing in the world. In the army they give you a medal for spraying napalm on people. Civilian life, you go to jail for giving someone an orgasm. Maybe I'm not supposed to understand it.
She did not want or welcome these public assaults on her sensibilities. The students’ jokes offended her and she had little doubt that their sexually provactive attempts at humor were objectively offensive. She heads straight to the Dean’s office to file a complaint of sexual harassment. The complaining student did not know, and likely would not have cared, that the first student was quoting Lenny Bruce, and the second student, George Carlin. Bruce and Carlin were social and political satirists who reveled in pushing the societal envelope and upsetting people so that they might contemplate whether their own standards of right and wrong were the only ones that were acceptable.
In 1961 Lenny Bruce was arrested for using the word “cocksucker” in a routine, and for other vulgar depictions – a jury acquitted him of an obscenity charge. Do we want our college administrators and students to be thought police, the very types of oppressors against whom college students traditionally railed? Lenny Bruce was vulgar. He offended by design. Bruce, as did George Carlin, called attention to the dangers and hypocrisy of racism, sexual repression, and overbearing religious institutions – all legitimate topics of public discourse. Would Carlin or Bruce so overwhelm college students’ sensitivity to politically incorrect thoughts that they might cause them lasting harm? Must the next Lenny Bruce or George Carlin avoid college in order to make the public think?
The University of Massachusetts, as is true of almost every college, claims to value academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. In reality, two decades of political correctness, the exaggerated fear of almost all critical or humorous commentary about any group identified by race, religion, gender, ethnicity, nationality, age, or sexual orientation, threatens creative discourse. In college, students should learn how to debate, refute, and if necessary, ignore ideas that offend them. They are poorly served, and the nation is poorly served, if the message they take away from four expensive years on campus is that they are entitled not to be offended and may seek to silence those whose ideas annoy them.