Print Issue Volume 101 - Issue 5

Free Speech, Higher Education, and the PC Narrative

This Article reviews discussions in the press about campus political correctness (PC) and free speech during two periods of intense interest in the same. The first is the period from 1989–1995, when the term political correctness first came into popular use and as campus communities, politicians, and the public at large grappled with issues ranging from campus hate-speech codes to social taboos regarding race and gender. The second is the period from 2014–2016, when campus protests, and so-called PC concepts such as “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” captured public attention.

This review reveals, among other things, tremendous imprecision throughout the public discourse. For example, many commentators decry political correctness as a threat to free speech but leave unclear whether, by political correctness, they mean campus speech codes, informal social pressures, or something else. Such imprecision impacts the quality of the debate considerably. Substantially different free speech implications are raised, for instance, by speech codes imposed by campus administrations than by trigger warnings that a professor voluntarily adopts in class. The tendency to elide these distinctions in public debate can have tangible consequences. For example, public anger over PC—particularly where PC is conflated with pervasive liberalism—can take the form of disgust with the very fact of student protests. In channeling such reactions and purporting to clamp down on PC in the name of free speech, politicians themselves can threaten academic freedom by interfering in university faculty governance.

This Article was written mostly prior to the 2016 presidential election. The pre-election campaign, however, and the ubiquity of discourse about political correctness throughout it, feature prominently in the Article. More so, as this Article’s conclusion—written after the election—notes, post-election developments, including proposals to enhance state control of universities to fight political correctness, accentuate the discourse’s complexities and its high stakes.

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