There is a new controversy over language codes in universities that have been rated “red light” by the University of Wisconsin (Oshkosh) and their prohibition on “offending” or “degrading” comments, including insulting people for their political views.
The UW Oshkosh policy states
“All members of the university have a responsibility to promote and a right to expect … an environment that is free from harassment and free from harassment offensive and degrading comments and nicknames based on race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, age, disability, military status, socio-economic status, marital status or political views;; The consistent enforcement of the protection of the federal, state and universities against discriminatory treatment is free of official language codes. “
Under this standard, a student or faculty member could be punished for offending or belittling another person’s “political views”. It’s a standard (like many) that is strikingly subjective. It is triggered by the reaction of others to language. When a student describes conservatives as “fascists” or democrats as “communists”, it can be described as degrading or offensive. Likewise, protests against the military on campus could trigger such a rule.
The policy also makes a strong commitment to freedom of speech and reserves the right to restrict freedom of speech under this broad definition.
Such codes allow for arbitrary and biased enforcement. We have seen very different reactions from universities based on which groups or views are attacked for racial, gender, or political reasons. If conservative faculties or controversial speakers are approached, few officials or fellow professors have come forward to denounce such campaigns. The same does not apply if controversies have arisen over statements on the left. We discussed efforts to fire professors who express dissenting views on various subjects, including efforts to oust a leading economist from the University of Chicago, as well as a leading professor of linguistics at Harvard and a professor of literature at Penn. Sites like Lawyers, Guns, and Money feature authors like the Colorado Law Professor Paul Campus calling for the dismissal of people with opposing views, including myself. Such campaigns target teachers and students who dispute evidence of systemic racism in the use of lethal force by the police or have other conflicting views in current debates on pandemics, reparations, electoral fraud or other issues.
The Wisconsin (Oshkosh) language code encourages such arbitrary enforcement. As a state school, Wisconsin is subject to the protection of freedom of expression. As a result, this poorly written code may not actually be enforced. The biggest concern, however, is the language chilling effect on students or faculty who do not want to risk being selected for language violations. The university should rewrite its language code to create the opposite presumption in favor of protecting different viewpoints. Universities should be places for passionate debates on social and political issues. This often includes harsh or insulting comments, but higher education should also instill tolerance for opposing viewpoints. Instead, this language code teaches what others should adjust their language to avoid anything that you find offensive or degrading. It creates a learned kind of fragility and rigidity when it comes to responding to the opposing views of others.
When you are feeling passionate, any contrary view can be considered “toxic”. Indeed, such moments as mentioned by SNL can occur in space: