Over the past generation, political correctness has advanced by leaps and bounds on our nation’s campuses.
Two years have passed since the University of Wisconsin-Madison Faculty Senate voted 71-62 to abolish its faculty speech code, thereby becoming the only major university to rescind a code without being required to by a court. Enacted in 1988 along with a student code, the faculty code prohibited expression that “is demeaning” to students on grounds of race, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, handicapped condition, and the like. In addition, the code was oriented toward finding offense — the determination of what constituted demeaning expression was based on the sensibilities of the offended group, making it a subjective standard not based on broader community norms. The act of abolition was especially surprising because the University of Wisconsin-Madison, under the aegis of former Chancellor Donna Shalala, had gained national recognition for being a pioneer in the movement to adopt codes back in the late eighties. As journalist Jonathan Rauch remarked in an article on the vote in the National Journal, the vote amounted to an “Earthquake in PC Land.”
Given the success of abolition on such a campus, activists in the movement had reason to hope that the Madison vote would spark similar movements elsewhere. After all, codes and related policies had, by this time, encountered widespread condemnation in the media, the public, and books written by civil libertarians and individuals dedicated to traditional notions of academic freedom and liberal education. Such works as The Shadow University, co-authored by Alan Charles Kors and Harvey Silverglate, had chronicled the widespread abuse of codes, which was often the product of good intentions gone awry in application. The University of Wisconsin abolition supporters were also encouraged by the publicity their abolition effort had garnered across the country, leading to widespread national press coverage in such organizations as TheNewYorkTimes, The Boston Globe, the Associated Press, TheWall Street Journal, The Village Voice, Reason, Liberty, National Public Radio, and the National Journal. Perhaps most importantly, TheChronicleofHigherEducationcovered the last six months of the abolition drive, starting with a cover story in Fall 1998.
Codes had also encountered rough going in constitutional cases, as courts began invalidating virtually every code that appeared before them, including Wisconsin’s student code. Wisconsin’s student code was narrower than most codes (including the University’s faculty code), prohibiting “racist or discriminatory comments, epithets, or other expressive behavior directed at an individual or on separate occasions at different individuals . . . if such comments . . . intentionally:
- Demean the race, religion, sex . . . of the individual or individuals; and
- Create an intimidating, hostile, or demeaning environment for education. . . . ”
But it ran against constitutional shoals when a federal court declared it unconstitutional in 1991 for not being limited to “fighting words,” which are not protected by the First Amendment. Michigan’s code bit the constitutional dust in 1989 in a forceful federal court decision that emphasized its vagueness and overbreadth, and which went out of its way to criticize the chilling effect of the policy guidelines that accompanied the code. The Stanford University code (the most limited of all) fell in 1995. In another important case, a federal court ruled that George Mason University violated the First Amendment rights of Sigma Chi Fraternity in 1991 when it placed the fraternity on two years probation for staging a “Dress a SIG contest (dress members like ugly women.)” One student dressed up as an overweight black woman. Following the logic of the Wisconsin and Michigan cases, the court ruled that the university had no power under the Constitution to punish expression because of its alleged offense, even if the expression involved racial insult.