Food for thought

Middlebury College Violates Its Own Speech Code.” Seeing that headline yesterday on the blog of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) was a bit shocking.

The article refers to the Aunt Des videos, which we already know can lead to some interesting sociopolitical conclusions. FIRE is not offended by the videos. On the contrary,

the point of this post is in no way to condemn the Middlebury administration for putting out these videos. Middlebury promises to protect free speech, and these videos are unquestionably … protected by the First Amendment. Rather, the intent of this post is to point out that broadly worded harassment policies like Middlebury’s encompass so much protected speech that they cannot possibly be enforced across the board, leaving administrators with complete discretion to decide what to punish.

Overall, Middlebury’s speech and harassment codes earn a Red Light, the worst of FIRE’s three categories, reserved for schools with “at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”  The site goes into minute detail about exactly which parts of the College Handbook leave space open for censorship and why.

FIRE’s main beef with Midd is that the College’s vague and open-ended policies can be both ineffectual and too restrictive. The Aunt Des videos should technically count as inappropriate by the College’s own standards (which FIRE says are too broad), yet they somehow just don’t. If Aunt Des were of a different ethnicity, would things be different? If Aunt Des had been created by students instead of by the Administration? These questions can’t be answered in a consistent way by the current policy, FIRE contends.

If it’s any comfort, we’re not much worse off than a lot of colleges and universities. Here are FIRE’s ratings for some peer institutions:

Who do these FIRE hooligans think they are, anyway? Well, highly-trained lawyers who are really into these issues. The group has no stated political affiliation, arguing on behalf of groups across the political spectrum. For what it’s worth, Wikipedia seems to support FIRE’s neutrality. The author of the Middlebury article is a Penn Law grad who has written a staggering number of school profiles for the site.

Although FIRE doesn’t fit in any one political pidgeonhole, they do have their own agenda: they’re not big fans of social honor codes (academic ones are OK), and they don’t like when schools try to act in loco parentis (in the place of parents) and provide for every aspect of student life.

However you feel about this, it’s certainly thought-provoking, and much more complicated than the typical “are we too PC or not?” shouting match. Protecting speech is hard.