Maryland NOW Takes A Stand Against Free Speech

The local affiliate of the National Organization of Women is among many national and local organizations who believes that college students are not entitled to freedom of speech.

Eugene Volokh reported that Maryland’s NOW affiliate signed on to a letter to the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in an effort to force colleges and universities to punish students for exercising free speech and to block access to particular websites.

The specific remedies that they are asking for include:

  • College disciplinary actions against students engaging in offensive speech;
  • “Geofencing” anonymous websites such as YikYak;
  • Banning the use of campus wi-fi to view objectionable sites.

A copy of the letter is available here. Specifically, the letter requests “that the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) promptly issue guidance to universities and colleges reminding them of their legal obligations under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to protect students from harassment and threats based on sex, race, color, or national origin carried out via Yik Yak and other anonymous social media applications.”

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Volokh’s piece notes a number of examples that the letter and its signatories call attention to. No doubt, many of the examples are heinous, immoral, wrong, and have no place in civilized society. Some of it, as Volokh notes, is *not* protected by the Constitution because they are not merely words, but threats violence. But the other offensive things that were said? Their speech is protected just like anybody else’s speech is. And there are relevant court cases to back it up. But that may not matter because, as Volokh notes, “courts have firmly rejected these kinds of calls to restrict college student speech, though the OCR and the college administrations it pressures can get away with a lot of restrictions until the lawsuits are actually brought.” What that means is that the Education Department has a potential opportunity to require colleges and universities to implement these restrictive codes without Congressional action as a condition of accepting federal funds until it works its way through the courts. There is no legal justification for doing so however. The Children’s Internet Protection Act applies only to K-12 schools and is not applicable to colleges and university. This is somewhat more defensible given that majority of students in K-12 schools are under the age of majority.

The problem here is that a local organization, such as Maryland NOW, is trying to use federal authority to chill speech on college campuses. And that is the real takeaway from this. Because what is offensive to some people may be not be offensive to somebody else, and vice versa. I’m offended by the idea of an organization, such as Maryland NOW, discussing abortion and pro-choice politics. Are my rights being violated if somebody talks about that on campus? Because that, sadly, is the logical end of this. Yes, the examples cited in the letter are heinous, rude, disrespectful, and dehumanizing. But at what point will these strict speech codes be applied to political speech is well? And don’t think it won’t happen, given the fact that it already has been in many circumstances. If it wasn’t, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wouldn’t have to exist.

It isn’t lost on me, too, that Maryland NOW is taking a stand against a firmly entrenched American institution that is an explicit part of the Constitution while continuing to believe that any restrictions on a Constitutional right that was invented out of whole cloth is one too many.

This is a dangerous road to go down. It’s made even more dangerous by the revelation that over half of college students oppose free speech in this country. Not at all surprising when considering that this generation is more intolerant than the previous generation, and that this is a manifestation of what Herbert Marcuse called “Repressive Tolerance” in which the objective was to engage in “the practice of discriminating tolerance in an inverse direction, as a means of shifting the balance between Right and Left by restraining the liberty of the Right, thus counteracting the pervasive inequality of freedom.

The Voltaire quote from the top of this piece still applies. And we should be asking Maryland’s NOW Chapter why they don’t support the First Amendment.

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