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Articles / Campus Life / Free Speech on Campus

Free Speech on Campus

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Feb. 10, 2015
I have always been a proponent of free thinking, especially when it comes to the concept of higher education. Although we all have certain ideological polarizations, a healthy attitude for approaching college might well be something like, “I know what I like and believe, but I am certainly willing to keep an open mind and entertain new concepts and ideas. However, I reserve the right to reject those that don't expand or sit in harmony with my personal orientation."

All that could be boiled down into just maintaining a reasonably open mind. Apparently, in some corners of the Ivy Tower world, that's becoming more difficult. I say this because of a news item I stumbled upon yesterday concerning the University of Michigan, one of America's more prestigious (whatever that means) public universities. Here's the headline:

Public university spends $16K on campaign to warn students to watch what they say

Free speech is becoming more of an issue on campus these days. Political Correctness (PC) is making increasingly intrusive inroads from a number of angles. In this particular edition of PC-ism at UMichigan, we read of the following administrative initiative, chronicled in the College Fix article:

'Inclusive Language Campaign' debuts at University of Michigan

Dozens of posters plastered across the University of Michigan caution students not to say things that might hurt others' feelings, part of a new “Inclusive Language Campaign" at the state's flagship public university that cost $16,000 to implement.

Words declared unacceptable through the campaign include “crazy," “insane," “retarded," “gay," “tranny," “gypped," “illegal alien," “fag," “ghetto" and “raghead." Phrases such as “I want to die" and “that test raped me" are also verboten.

University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald told The College Fix in an email the campaign aims to “address campus climate by helping individuals understand that their words can impact someone and to encourage individuals to commit to creating a positive campus community."

Apparently, Rick and his administrative “mollifiers" have seen the need to explain to their student body — young men and women smart enough to get into the University of Michigan — that certain words can be offensive. Beyond the laughable nannyesque nature of this initiative lies the more serious issue of free speech repression.

Here are a few key points proffered by the College Fix article:

Students have been asked to sign a pledge to “use inclusive language" and to help their peers “understand the importance of using inclusive language," according to campaign materials.

Though only in existence for one semester, the Inclusive Language Campaign has maintained a strong presence throughout the university. Students roaming the campus frequently encounter posters of all sizes reminding them: “YOUR WORDS MATTER," and asking questions such as: “If you knew that I grew up in poverty, would you still call things 'ghetto' and 'ratchet'?"

Here's one of my favorite sentences:

Representatives of the Inclusive Language Campaign did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The College Fix. …

The university spokesman comments further:

… Asked if the campaign stifles free speech, Fitzgerald said “we believe this program has just the opposite effect."

“We believe it will make discourse more constructive by respecting the views and perspectives of others," he said. “A campus conversation about the impact of words is good for everyone."

The University of Maryland launched a similar campaign three years ago that cost $15,000.

Regardless of what you may think about targeting free speech on college campuses, the comments readers of this article have made are worth noting, not only for an insight into their general reaction to to “inclusive language" (which, in my view, should be called “exclusive" language) but also for their wit. Here are a few from both the Fix's article and a threadI posted on the College Confidential discussion forum about it.

From the Fix readers:

– Parents who paid tuition to this institution got gypped.

– Call me crazy but your comment is insane.

– I'd NEVER pay a penny for my kids or grandkids to matriculate at this Orwellian dystopia.

– States need to rethink using state tax money to fund these schools.

– This place seems to think freedom of speech was a bad suggestion by the founding fathers.

– This type of nonsense is happening at virtually every university in the country. We are a raising a generation of academically retarded youth and it will be to their own detriment.

– Orwellian!

– This is a continuation of Bolshevik theory of collective guilt.

– I don't like the idea of a university trying to restrict speech. The 1st amendment protects speech including unpopular speech.

– Especially unpopular speech. That's the whole point. Unpopular speech helped ignite the revolution against the British tyrants that formed our country.

From my thread:

– Call this legal alien here crazy, but this is insane. (I am typing this as I drive through the ghetto. I hope I don't die)

– Being nicer to other people can only have a positive effect!

– Are they going to burn Tom Sawyer, too?

At first I thought this was a joke. Guess not.

If 18-25 year olds at a highly regarded university can't figure out how to speak properly in public without a campaign like this, then that's a pretty sad indictment of the student body. Why do they need the “rules" or even “suggestions" in this article to govern their speech?

Kids: If someone is talking to you and using these phrases, and if you don't like it, then let them know, walk away and don't ever speak to that person again. Sticks and stones. If the speaker is as insensitive and egregious as you think, they will have no friends and will learn the hard way. On the other hand, if you are the only one offended, maybe it's YOU who is overly sensitive. You will undoubtedly face much worse people in your life.

Time, place, context, audience. It's how we all learn to communicate in a civilized, adult world. This campaign is just silly. It's U Michigan, not kindergarten.

– I'm not offended by the amount of money spent; I'm offended by the attempt at stifling speech rather than letting natural consequences of insensitive speech take their own course. Why stop at the selection of phrases in this campaign? I bet if we put our heads together, we could come up with dozens – hundreds -thousands – of words or phrases that one should refrain from uttering in polite/sensitive company. A person should develop his/her speech habits by learning to be attuned to the context of the environment, even if this is through trial and error. Memorizing 8 or 10 or 12 words and phrases to avoid is too juvenile for a college campus IMO.

– Where is this money going? You can get all the RA to hold a required seminar for their freshmen and get student orgs to do it for you. You can print out several hundred posters. You can plaster it over social media. Why would you even need to spend more than $50 on it.


I like to think for myself and not have someone else trying to “suggest" what I should or should not say. Independent thinkers beware: Your intellectual and academic freedom may be at risk within certain college administrations.

Bottom line: Do your research about the colleges on your list. The free speech you save may be your own.


Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles on College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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