In Defense of Uncivil Speech

Since the tragic massacre in Arizona earlier this year, Americans have been treated to a lot of talk about how a lack of “civility” in public discourse led to the shooting, may have led to the shooting, or didn’t lead to the shooting but still reminded us about how bad uncivil speech is in general. Now comes the news that a new National Institute for Civil Discourse will be established at the University of Arizona, the site of President Obama’s speech in the wake of the shootings, with former Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton as honorary co-chairs.

The goals of the institute sound benign enough. Former President Bush said in a press release that “[o]ur country needs a setting for political debate that is both frank and civil, and the National Institute for Civil Discourse can make a significant contribution toward reaching this goal.” Vice Chair of the Arizona Board of Regents Fred DuVal, who reportedly came up with the idea of the institute, added, “I think we need to be realistic about what can be accomplished.…What is realistic is to create enough conversation among more thoughtful and respectful people in as many places in the country as possible.”

It’s hard to object to this mission, and if this were the extent of the efforts to combat civility in society, it would not be problematic. Unfortunately, though, other efforts to enforce civility are far less benign, and our nation’s colleges and universities have, unsurprisingly, long been in the forefront of the movement to limit Americans’ fundamental liberties in the name of “civility" -- with the limits defined, of course, by those in power on campus.

An excellent example of how campus censors use “civility” requirements to silence dissent can be found in the former speech code of San Francisco State University (SFSU).  In 2006, during the course of an anti-terrorism protest on campus, the SFSU College Republicans stomped on handmade replicas of the flags of the terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah. Other students complained about this behavior on the grounds that the word “Allah” was on the flags, and that by stepping on these flags, the College Republicans were, in the words of one SFSU official, “desecrating the name of Allah.” As it happened, not being Arabic readers, the College Republicans had simply copied pictures of the flags straight from the Internet, and did not know the Arabic word “Allah” was on them.