Keeping Campus Speech Codes in Perspective:

Thomas Sowell (Real Clear Politics) writes, among other things (emphasis added):

Liberals in general, and academics in particular, like to boast of their open-mindedness and acceptance of non-conformity. But they mean not conforming to the norms of society at large.

They have little or no tolerance to those who do not conform to the norms of academic political correctness. Nowhere else in America is free speech so restricted as on academic campuses with speech codes.

I have often criticized campus speech codes -- but I think we need to put them in perspective: Speech on campuses (at least outside graded class projects, which necessarily must be evaluated based on their content) is generally far more free of institutional punishment than speech in many other places.

The obvious example, which probably affects about ten times more people than do campus speech codes, is restrictions on speech in workplaces. In most workplaces (again, university workplaces are in some measure something of an exception) speech is quite seriously restricted.

First, it is restricted by the government as sovereign, through the pressure imposed by workplace harassment law. One can argue (as I have long argued) that some such pressure is unconstitutional, and that the laws are in a sense part of the speech code movement, but the laws impose broader formal speech-restrictive pressure than do campus speech codes.

Second, workplace speech is also restricted constitutionally by the government as employer, restricting speech that is unduly disruptive, profane, insulting, and the like. Some such restrictions might be unconstitutional under the Pickering test, but many are constitutionally permissible. Third, private employers restrict speech by their employees in a wide range of ways, even setting aside the pressure from harassment law.

Some such restrictions may be proper and others improper -- but most employees will tell you that their speech is quite substantially restricted by the threat of employer sanctions, and much more broadly than student speech is restricted by campus speech codes. (As one simple example, which person is more likely to face punishment for his speech: A student who prominently criticizes on campus the faculty or the administration, or an employee who prominently criticizes management while on the job?) So the "Nowhere else in America" strikes me as factually incorrect.

We notice campus speech codes, I think, in part precisely because student speech is otherwise so generally protected, both at public and private universities. In my experience, academics -- certainly including liberal ones -- are actually quite tolerant of a wide range of criticism, and generally speaking wouldn't try to restrict the sort of speech that is routinely restricted in workplaces (again, consider most criticism of the institution or even of named faculty members). Against this decades-old tradition of broad student free speech, the restrictions on allegedly racist, sexist, anti-gay, and similar speech stand out as exceptions. I'm glad they stand out, and I'm happy to condemn them as generally unconstitutional (in public universities) and generally improper (in all universities). But we shouldn't let these exceptions blind us to the broader rule, and view campuses as unusually speech-restrictive places, where in reality they are quite speech-protective places.

Naturally, I have spoken only of formal restrictions, not informal social pressures stemming from a fear of social ostracism, a fear of public condemnation, and the like. But such social pressures are likewise present in many places (and actually quite proper to a large extent in many places, including universities, depending on the context), including workplaces.