Sex, violence, and politics

The elephant in the room

Andrew Breland

Can you ever really say what you want? If you just want to rip into someone or something one day, is that allowed? On the other hand, do we live behind masks? Every day, someone else denounces the evils of political correctness and the importance of not offending anyone. But even this isn’t exactly what I want to bemoan. Nor is my issue with profanity. Walking around campus, it is obvious that students neither gain nor lose the respect or admiration of their peers by using “naughty words.” The truth is, sometimes those words are the only way to express some excited feeling, enraged attitude, or incomprehensible feeling of raw emotion. One should not use these gratuitously, but sometimes judiciously.

But that’s an issue settled far too easily. The question I want to ask is more fraught. It gets at a deeper problem both, in a small sense, here on campus, and in the larger “society.” Are there rules we have to live by when we express ideas? Are there things that no matter who I am I cannot say, for fear of reprisal, prosecution, or worse?

Here in the United States, most people would agree that we live under the US Constitution. Amendment One of that document reads “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.” Yet even in light of this statement, there are things that I legally cannot say. I cannot incite violence. I cannot disseminate prurient and obscene pornography. And potentially worst, I cannot spread known falsities about people, slandering their names, while writing for this paper.

But these aren’t the metrical rules, the hard and fast barricades that I want to address.

What I want to reproach are rules like the new campus sexual harassment policy, or even worse, speech codes like those at some universities. Case’s luckily is a “better one,” though it could still use some fixing. According to data provided by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a free speech group based in Philadelphia, Case Western Reserve University receives the lowest rating for speech freedom on campus. Simply put, Case Western ranks near the bottom of colleges and universities in the freedom of students to say what they want.

But the freedom to say what you want extends far beyond what you might think it would include. Obviously, I can’t promote radical hate speech on campus. That’s illegal. We can debate the propriety of that ruling later. But what about political campaigning? What about where I can say things on campus? Does it make a difference that I said something in front of Adelbert Hall versus Storrs House?

Luckily at Case Western we do not have to consider this too often. We have a fairly lax speech code that does not define “free speech zones” or “appropriate hours” like at other universities. But still we are considered to be extremely unfriendly to student speech. Why?

There are multiple levels of speech one has to consider in this case. We prohibit political campaigning of any kind, in or on any university property. We disallow any activity that “disrupts operations” of any kind. We ban bullying. That last one is less of a bad thing and more just incredulous. This is college. Since when was that the same thing as kindergarten?

But there’s even a level beyond that. Consider sexual harassment. In some instances, reporting requirements are considered an intrusion on the free speech rights of victims. At Case Western, our new sexual harassment policy recognizes that if a student does not report a perceived or real case of sexual harassment, no matter the magnitude, it is a punishable offense. I cannot and will not debate the merits of this requirement, but I question its existence because of the effect it has on the freedom of speech. Ignorance of the rights of victims to say what they are comfortable saying is ignorance of society, and that is what we are dealing with here.

However – let’s take a moment for a reality check. It might be impossible for the university not to have a sexual harassment policy. It would be problematic for the university to allow blatant politicking on campus, given the nonprofit status we enjoy. And the university cannot be bothered by small things that interrupt the management of a multi-billion dollar research and administrative endeavor.

But is that supposed to be an excuse?

I want to suggest that because of a lack of communications, because of these hard and fast rules of what I can and cannot say, the university suffers. Because of a broad sexual harassment policy, art that portrays nudity, speech that condemns or awards sexuality, and literature that could be considered “erotic” is all put under additional scrutiny. Because of a ban on politics, campus advocacy groups like the College Republicans, Democrats, and Young Americans for Liberty are limited in their advocacy abilities; other groups like the Campus Right to Life, Gay-Straight Alliance, and, in some cases, sustainability groups must watch their messaging to avoid a political tone; conversations of a political nature become cloistered in coffee shops and offices, as openness turns to reticence.

Prohibiting speech has what Justice William Brennan famously called “a chilling effect” on all sorts of interaction and activity. Because of innocent restrictions, students are not given the experience or environment that we dream of when we think, “I want to go to college.” The communications, community, and dialogue that have been promised are destroyed.

I will be honest. I commend trying to balance freedom of expression with the university’s principles. But unfortunately, in our current state, the university’s thumb is tipping the scale too far in favor of restriction. We need a policy that encourages all forms of speech, especially speech that offends someone, challenges beliefs, and, in the words of WH Auden, “force us to have second thoughts,” and “free us from the fetters of self.” We do this with hope that we advance the quality of the conversation and making everyone all the wiser for it.

Andrew Breland is a double major in political science and English, planning on getting a master’s degree in political science before attending law school. He is the vice president of the Phi Alpha Delta pre-law fraternity and the treasurer of CWRU’s undergraduate mock trial team.