The Greek Tragedy of Campus Censorship

Most American universities have eliminated the once common requirements that their students study the ancient Greek classics, such as the plays of Sophocles and the Homeric epics. Whatever the reasons for this change, a highly unfortunate byproduct of it is that a startlingly small number of people on campus seem to understand the fundamental risks of what the Greeks called hubris: excessive pride or arrogance. And one of the main places this becomes apparent is in the relentless yet doomed attempts to banish so-called “hate speech” from campus.

In the wake of the Tuscon mass shooting last month, a vast array of commentators immediately jumped to the conclusion that “hateful rhetoric” must have been behind the crime, or at least influenced it. As it turns out, accused shooter Jared Loughner appears to have been motivated more by his own mental illness than any particular outside stimuli (seriously, the guy had a skull shrine in his backyard).

Yet this revelation did not challenge the underlying assumption made by many in politics and the media that we would certainly be better off if violent rhetoric, hate speech, or other “extreme” forms of expression could be silenced. One got the feeling that the First Amendment was an obstacle that somehow needed to be overcome in our quest for a peaceable society.

This kind of thinking is rife on university campuses, and unlike in society at large, most universities actively ban speech that is protected by the First Amendment in an effort to create a more benign campus environment. While this is unlawful at public universities and generally deceptive at private universities (most of them promise free speech but fail to deliver), the effort to ban “bad” speech has widespread support on campus among administrators and even students.

For instance, a student article in the Tufts Daily last week defended Tufts’ decision to declare a conservative newspaper guilty of “harassment” for two articles (a parody of affirmative action and a list of unpleasant facts about Islamic regimes), by saying that “[t]he idea that more speech can be used to combat hate speech operates on the assumption that all speech is equal. That is unrealistic.... [T]the call for more speech [to combat hate speech] places an undue burden on those targeted by hate speech to be constantly acting in their own defense.” Indeed, the student author seems downright terrified of freedom of speech, saying, “Hate speech rather degrades a person's humanity, worth and sense of self.... [F]ree speech policies merely institutionalize the ability of people to hurt others.”

At North Carolina State University, the existence of a “Free Expression Tunnel” on campus has led to similar efforts by students to eliminate “hate speech.” After a group of students painted the entire tunnel black to protest racist comments written about President Obama last November, a movement began to find some way to regulate what was written on the tunnel walls. The student government took a survey on whether it should create a student group to “keep up” the tunnel (which could only mean monitoring and eliminating “offensive” speech from the walls).

Thankfully, a majority of N.C. State students rejected this idea, but the student government is leaving open the possibility of supporting such a group in the future.

One of the many shocking things about these efforts from a historical perspective is the level of hubris required for students or administrators at an American university to believe that banning the expression of “hate” will somehow keep hate off of campus. Even if you accept the premise that having the authorities silence hateful speech will somehow lead to less hate in real life (a premise I certainly do not accept and will address in a future column), the fact is that the record of regimes of censorship is a record of failure.