Last Wednesday, 72 left-wing groups, including the Feminist Majority Foundation, American Association of University Women, and Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, asked federal civil-rights officials to crack down on anonymous politically-incorrect speech on campus, which they claim violates federal civil-rights laws such as Title IX. They claim they are concerned about “harassment” on anonymous social media applications like Yik Yak, as the Chronicle of Higher Education notes in the article “Women’s Groups Urge Colleges and Government to Rein in Yik Yak.”
But their October 21 letter to the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights makes clear that their real goal is to restrict free speech, not just “harassment,” since the letter explicitly labels constitutionally-protected speech as “race based harassment.” It seems their real goal is to silence dissent on campus by eliminating students’ ability to express their opinions anonymously. The ability to speak anonymously gives moderate and conservative students a chance to speak without vilified or punished by left-wing campus administrators or bullied by student government officials (who sometimes defund campus newspapers for having the temerity to print a moderate or conservative viewpoint about a racial or sexual issue.).
As their letter puts it, “Anonymous race-based harassment through Yik Yak is also pervasive on college campuses. At American University in Washington, DC, for example, Yakkers posted successive invidious comments targeting African-Americans, such as ‘Their entire culture just isn’t conducive to a life of success. It just isn’t. The outfits. The attitudes. The behavior.’” Regardless of whether this sentiment is racist, it certainly is not “harassment.” Indeed, even black newspaper columnists and entertainers regularly lament cultural impediments to success in the black community. Moreover, there is no “racism” exception to the First Amendment. In 1993, a federal appeals court cited the First Amendment to overturn a fraternity’s discipline for a racist, sexist “ugly woman” skit, in Iota Xi Chapter of Sigma Chi Fraternity v. George Mason University. And calling racist viewpoints “harassment” does not change this, because as another federal appeals court explained in DeJohn v. Temple University (2008), “there is no ‘harassment exception’” to free speech about racial and sexual issues on campus.
Requiring colleges to punish what is perceived to be “race-based” speech would endanger even viewpoints that are mainstream positions in society at large, but are disapproved of by politically-correct college campus administrators. Under campus hate speech and “harassment” codes, students have been subjected to campus disciplinary proceedings, in violation of the First Amendment, merely for expressing commonplace opinions about sexual and racial issues, such as criticizing feminism or affirmative action, or discussing homosexuality or the role of race in the criminal justice system.
Wesleyan University in Connecticut provides a recent example of how even mainstream conservative viewpoints are targeted for suppression on campus, in a saga so extreme that it drew criticism from the generally liberal Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell:
In September, sophomore Bryan Stascavage — a 30-year-old Iraq veteran and self-described “moderate conservative” — wrote a column for the Wesleyan Argus. In it, he criticized the Black Lives Matter movement — not the movement’s mission or motivations, but its tactics and messaging, particularly those of its more anti-cop fringe elements.
The essay was provocative, but it contained neither name-calling nor racial stereotypes. It was no more radical than the conservative commentary you might see on mainstream op-ed pages such as this one. That didn’t stop all hell from breaking loose.
Within 24 hours of publication, students were stealing and reportedly destroying newspapers around campus. In a school cafe, a student screamed at Stascavage through tears, declaring that he had “stripped all agency away from her, made her feel like not a human anymore,” Stascavage told me in a phone interview. Over the following days, he said, others muttered “racist” under their breath as he passed by.
The Argus’s editors published a groveling apology on the front page. They said they’d “failed the community” by publishing the op-ed without a counterpoint and said it “twist(ed) facts.” They promised to make the paper “a safe space for the student of color community.” This self-flagellation proved insufficient; students circulated a petition to defund the newspaper.
The Wesleyan student government has now voted to effectively cut the newspaper’s funding.
In their October 21 letter, the left-wing groups essentially ask the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights to repeal the First Amendment as to internet speech and anonymous speech, complaining that colleges have cited “vague First Amendment concerns” in refusing to crack down on such speech. (The Supreme Court ruled that anonymous speech is generally protected by the First Amendment in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission (1995)).
As they note, the Office for Civil Rights has already pressured colleges to adopt what are effectively campus speech codes in its recent “Dear Colleague” letters to the nation’s school officials, which label certain kinds of speech as probative of racial or sexual harassment: “In its October 2010 Dear Colleague Letter, OCR clarified that prohibited harassment may take many forms, including . . graphic and written statements, which may include use of cell phones or the Internet . . OCR should also make clear that the First Amendment does not prevent schools from taking action” to restrict such speech, whether it “occurs in-person or online.”
It asks OCR to force colleges to take actions such as investigating “all” complaints of “online harassment,” whether or not the speaker is “anonymous”; bringing “campus disciplinary proceedings against” such “individuals”; blocking or “geo-fencing of anonymous social media applications that are used to . . . harass students”; and “barring the use of campus wi-fi to view or post to these applications.” Thus, it seeks to ban entire applications from campus based on the speech of some of their users, and to keep students from even seeing what is posted on them, keeping them in the dark about their content. (The Supreme Court has described such blanket bans as being as foolish and harmful as “burning the house to roast the pig,” in its 1997 decision striking down a ban on indecent internet speech.)
But there is no “internet” exception to free speech about racial or sexual issues (or a blanket “hostile environment” exception, for that matter). That’s why the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a lawsuit based on a “hostile environment” that it assumed was created by a white professor’s anti-immigration emails. In that decision, Rodriguez v. Maricopa Community College (2010), it relied on the First Amendment to quash a racial harassment suit against the professor for sending those emails, which a college’s Hispanic faculty claimed created a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and 42 U.S.C 1983.
Some of the letter’s demands are probably too extreme to be endorsed by the Office for Civil Rights. But in the past, it has sometimes shown a disregard for the First Amendment and limits on its statutory jurisdiction. As I noted earlier in The Wall Street Journal, “the Education Department, where I used to work,” is
“pressuring colleges to adopt unconstitutional speech codes in the name of fighting sexual harassment. It has disregarded many court rulings in doing so.
“For example, the Education Department has wrongly ordered schools to regulate off-campus speech and conduct. That contributed to the harassment charges against Prof. Laura Kipnis, who was accused over a politically incorrect essay she wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education and statements she made on Twitter. Court rulings like Roe v. Saint Louis University (2014) reject Title IX claims over off-campus conduct, but the Education Department ignores them. It also ignores court rulings like Klein v. Smith (1986) emphasizing that the First Amendment usually bars public schools from restricting off-campus speech. For example, the Education Department told schools to regulate comments ‘on the Internet’ in an October 2010 letter. In 2014, it demanded that Harvard regulate off-campus conduct more.”
The Office for Civil Rights should nevertheless keep in mind that it — and individual OCR officials — can be sued for enforcing the civil-rights laws in a way that violate the First Amendment. OCR’s demands under the civil-rights laws were once held to have violated the First Amendment in Knights of the Ku Klux Klan v. East Baton Rouge Parish School Board (1978). A chapter of the Klan had sought to meet together during non-school hours in an empty classroom, the way other groups were permitted to do by the school district. But it was barred from doing so by the school district, acting under pressure from the Office for Civil Rights, which argued that its presence would be illegal racial discrimination. A federal appeals court ruled that the school district and OCR had violated the Klan’s free-speech rights, which could not be overridden by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act or OCR’s requirements.
Similarly, another federal appeals court ruled that individual federal civil-rights officials could be sued for restricting speech in White v. Lee (2000). That ruling emphasized that speech can’t be punished just because it incites illegal discrimination. It also ruled that federal officials could be sued for threatening citizens with civil fines for speaking out against a minority housing project, even if the speech persuaded a city to delay a housing project that would house members of a protected minority group. That decision also indicated that the restrictions on speech found in workplace racial or sexual harassment rules cannot be applied to society generally under non-workplace discrimination laws.