WICHITA, KAN. — When college students returned to classes last fall, few had heard of the "politically correct" movement--a new cause designed to snuff out prejudicial speech and actions, no matter the cost to individual liberties. Several months later, the crusade has its own acronym, PC, and an organized opponent, the National Assn. of Scholars, in Princeton, N.J.
The movement became so widespread that it even has its own cartoon hero, created by a student at Brown University. It's Politically Correct Man! (Actually, "that's politically correct person," he emphasized in his coming-out strip.)
Student PCers used to be considered trendy. Now, politically correct thinking has become such a cliche that following the doctrine amounts to little more than jumping on a bandwagon quickly losing momentum. The popularity and novelty of the PC movement have apparently come and gone, given a little push last weekend by none less than the President.
The alarming problems that this movement created remain, however. What is it we mean by politically correct speech? At the University of Michigan last year, a student said during a classroom discussion that he considered homosexuality a disease treatable with therapy. The university accused him of violating the school's regulations prohibiting speech that victimizes individuals for their sexual orientation. Last September, after the American Civil Liberties Union took the university to court, a district judge ruled that the school's regulations violated the First Amendment.
Despite the ruling, the damage had been done. Undoubtedly, open discussion of some controversial matters in that particular class--and others--was irrevocably diminished.
From protesting wars to simply exchanging controversial ideas, students have taken advantage of the freedom on college campuses to express themselves. Yet some universities are becoming places where expression is more limited than encouraged. Racist incidents on campuses have prompted "guidelines" and policies aimed at preventing discriminatory or racist remarks.
The vagueness of the regulations is of the greatest concern. The student-conduct code at the University of Wisconsin now prohibits "certain types of expressive behavior directed at individuals and intended to demean and to create a hostile environment for education."
The University of Kansas prohibits "obscene speech that advocates racial, ethnic or religious discrimination, hatred or persecution." Kansas State University's policy is even broader. It not only precludes "easily identified" examples of racial and ethnic harassment, but also "more frequent and generalized instances, such as blatant and subtle graffiti and insensitive use of language--including epithets and 'humor.' "
The goal of curbing discrimination on campuses is well-intended in principle. Incidents of racist acts and offensive speech aimed, most often, at minorities, homosexuals and women are occurring with alarming frequency. But any inhibition of free speech, especially at universities, which should be the site of the freest possible expression, is dangerous.
Limits on speech could affect the performance of teachers who might guard against controversial statements. Would a teacher take Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" off the reading list because it contains the word "nigger"? Our classrooms would be safe from offensive remarks, but with teachers guarding against certain topics, students would get tame, watered-down subjects.
Where will the line be drawn? Will colleges stop scheduling speakers with controversial viewpoints? Comedian Andrew Dice Clay's act includes racist comments. Would playing his tapes in a dorm room or at a fraternity party be against campus rules?
Tolerant, anti-racist feelings cannot be mandated. Students must be free to hear all views, even abhorrent ones. It may surprise those who would cover students' ears, but young people are able to distinguish and reject worthless, spiteful opinion. Students at Dartmouth College, for example, are rallying against the Dartmouth Review, the conservative, student-run newspaper that has attacked homosexuals and minorities--and, most recently, Jews.
We learn early to answer any teasing with, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." After one or two recesses in kindergarten, children learn that words can hurt. But watching our rights to free speech diminish should hurt more.