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Cleveland-Marshall College of Law Legal Studies Research Paper Series


Free speech, speech repression, First Amendment, framing, political balkanization, university speech codes, linguistic control, racism, insensitivity, bigotry, FIRE, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, language control, giving offense, feigned offense, role of scholars


Universities are the institutions responsible for advancing our freedom of thought and discourse through the work of independent scholars and the teaching of each generation of students. But for several decades, universities and other educational institutions have increasingly set up rules aimed at protecting individuals and groups from criticism that those individuals and groups consider insensitive, offensive, harassing, intolerant and disrespectful, critical of their core belief systems or threats to their agendas. Even though it has been claimed that disadvantaged interest groups have a right to use one-sided tactics of intolerance against those they consider to be responsible for their misfortunes in a democracy this is a fundamentally wrong policy that ultimately tears apart the social fabric. I believe that many of the outraged reactions to speakers’ phrasing in many areas where “outrage” is voiced are insincere and done primarily or exclusively for purposes of gaining political advantage. This “fake offensiveness” -- “or OMG I am so hurt and offended” -- occurs because it is the ammunition by which interest groups gain political advantage. Yet universities, our supposed hotbeds of free and critical thinking, are co-conspirators in suppressing the intellectual independence and stifling the values they are supposed to be instilling in their students. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment were intended to free us from centuries of darkness and ignorance in ways that allowed the full flourishing of humanity. Unfortunately it turns out that we are less as a species than hoped and considerably less interested in open-minded freedom of thought and expression. Albert Schweitzer argued decades ago: “The past has, no doubt, seen the struggle of the free-thinking individual against the fettered spirit of a whole society, but the problem has never presented itself on the scale on which it does to-day, because the fettering of the collective spirit…by modern organizations, [by] modern unreflectiveness, and [by] modern popular passions, is a phenomenon without precedent in history.” The situation has rapidly degraded since Schweitzer spoke. There are several causes. In part the decline is due to the emergence of the Internet and related communications technologies. Although they offer incredible tools for the management and dissemination of knowledge, they have unfortunately bestowed power on fanatics and ideologues. In doing so we have opened an electronic “Pandora’s Box” full of hate, vitriol and ignorance. A result is the rapid fragmentation of society into aggressive actors and indignant cults. This has produced a social and political balkanization dominated by single-interest groups that are intent on achieving narrow agendas. These groups and political activists operate without any willingness to consider how their interests fit within the dimensions of an overall community where balance is necessary and compromise is not weakness but the “glue” that holds us together.