Friday, July 31, 2009

Two First Amendment violations in one year at University of Arizona

It's getting to the point where the University of Arizona could offer to its undergraduates a three-credit course in U.S. First Amendment law based around its own willfully negligent missteps.

Back in March I remarked several times on the University's holding of a plebiscite to decide whether or not to fund a chapter of PIRG. A solid series of precedents established that distribution of student fee monies to clubs and advocacy groups must be viewpoint-neutral and that plebiscites are not viewpoint neutral at all. The University went ahead with the vote in spite of this--perhaps whoever the responsible parties were didn't know the law (when one is so obviously "close" to First Amendment issues, there's no excuse to not look) and the U's counsel was asleep at the wheel. I (still a PhD candidate) was on the phone a few times with FIRE getting ready for possible legal action if PIRG proponents won. Fortunately for the University and the taxpayer, they lost.

Now Evan Lisull at the Desert Lamp reports on further First Amendment-violating shenanigans last Spring. Apparently, because David Horowitz is "controversial", the University of Arizona felt it should charge his hosts at the U a large "security fee". As explained in a letter sent by FIRE to UA president Robert Shelton, such practices run afoul of established First Amendment law--most directly, the precedent in Forsyth County, Georgia v. The Nationalist Movement, 505 U.S. 123 (1992)--as they burden expression based on its content. In response to FIRE's letter, the University refunded the fee.

Colleges have for a long time given those best at a sort of ritualized histrionics of faux-victimhood a heckler's veto over others' expression, including over the exchange of ideas. What happened to Lawrence Summers at Harvard was the most prominent and perhaps nastiest example--there's no way he could even have predicted his remarks could have offended, unless he had a thorough understanding of how unreasonable people think. The problem there was akin to predicting the actions of a retard on amphetamines. The real trouble is with the low-profile cases: "political correctness" persists. Offend someone who's learned to play the game, and you're in for much waste of your time if you are a student or loss of your job if you are staff. Better to exercise caution keep those ideas to yourself.

The First Amendment, although routinely ignored, at least in theory limits the extent to which state universities may hinder free speech. Private institutions should maintain similar standards simply because anything else is incompatible with intellectual life. If one must self-censor because another to whom the administration is sympathetic is good at throwing a fit and will be "offended" by something with which he disagrees, there is no free exchange of ideas. If nothing else, a BS or BA should leave college with two things: intellectual humility and a tendency to critical thought. (Mathematical skills and logic are probably number 3.) When the "victim ritual" is part of the "hidden curriculum", reactionary tendencies become validated and even encouraged; both humility and critical thought go out the window.

But the University of Arizona, in levying that fee, went beyond validating encouraging the reactionary "victim ritual". It gave a sort of heckler's veto to a hypothetical violent mob. That is the antithesis of higher education. And the implications would make a great topic for a freshman termpaper.

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