As USA Today reports, “civility” policies and programs are cropping up at universities across the nation. Some seem to be bound up with efforts to purge “bullying” from campus (my colleague David Cortman tackles that subject here), other efforts seem to have more affinity with the egg-shell student and the quest to eliminate “offensive” (read, Christian or pro-life) speech from campus. However, you slice it, the civility police are back.
On campuses nationwide, civility has become the mantra. The University of Nevada-Las Vegas in January signed off on a Statement of Civility that embraces “the articulation of unpopular and unsettling ideas” and “promotes the rights, safety, dignity, and value of every individual.” At Rutgers, plans for a two-year initiative called Project Civility were already in the works when Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge. George Mason University last fall launched an elective called Professionalism and Civility.
While I don’t mind more good manners (I took a great ettique course in college on how to properly butter bread), it’s not the place of government-run universities to impose civility requirements, because they often get out of hand. As USA Today notes:
Colleges must walk a fine line. A federal court in 2007 ruled that California State University could not impose a requirement that students “be civil to one another” because the term is too vague.
That’s exactly right. A group of College Republicans held a free speech event at SFSU and suffered through a seven month investigation because onestudent found the event “uncivil.” (Full disclosure: I was the CR’s lawyer.)
Despite rulings like this, the civility/anti-bullying/anti-offensive advocates are so persistent that even Congress is considering new anti-harassment legislation that would strip students of their basic First Amendment freedoms on campus. I would like to think that we, as a society, are better than that and can simply confront incivility with more, civil speech. As the court in the College Republicans’ case wrote:
It is important to emphasize here that it is controversial expression that it is the First Amendment’s highest duty to protect. By political definition, popular views need no protection. It is unpopular notions [like the sanctity of life] that are in the greatest peril-and it was primarily to protect their expression that the First Amendment was adopted. The Framers of our Constitution believed that a democracy could remain healthy over time only if its citizens felt free both to invent new ideas and to vent thoughts and feelings that were thoroughly out of fashion. Fashion, it was understood, is an agent of repression-and repression is an agent democracy’s death.
I commend this thinking to university “civility” committees.