FIRE’s Misleading Attack on CSU-Chico

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), “While all of 2011’s Speech Codes of the Month flagrantly violated students’ and faculty members’ right to free expression, two of them were so egregious that they deserve special mention as 2011’s Speech Codes of the Year.” But FIRE got a lot of things wrong in targeting CSU-Chico:

California State University–Chico. Students are not the only ones affected by campus speech codes; some codes apply to faculty members as well, compromising their ability to teach controversial or sensitive material without fear of punishment. At CSU-Chico, faculty commit sexual harassment if they “implicitly devalue students for their gender or sexual orientation.” According to university policy, examples of this type of harassment include “reinforcement of sexist stereotypes through subtle, often unintentional means,” including the use of “stereotypic generalizations.” Also prohibited is the “continual use of generic masculine terms such as to refer to people of both sexes or references to both men and women as necessarily heterosexual.” As would be expected at a major university, CSU-Chico offers many courses that necessarily involve sensitive issues relating to race, gender, and sexual orientation. Faculty members addressing such topics in the classroom at CSU-Chico risk violating this policy when discussing controversial but wholly germane subjects. And FIRE’s concern over such violations is anything but hypothetical: since our inception, we have handled all too many cases involving faculty members who faced discipline for classroom expression that should have been wholly protected by the principles of free speech and academic freedom.

A Google cache from Dec. 11 shows the website quoted by FIRE, but the link no longer works and I could find nothing like it by searching on the CSU-Chico website.

If CSU-Chico removed the webpage due to FIRE’s scrutiny (I didn’t receive a response from CSU-Chico over the holidays to my query), that’s a good thing. (UPDATE: FIRE reported after I posted this blog that CSU-Chico had done exactly that.) The descriptions were technically true—all of these examples, if taken to extremes and in combination with other actions, could be part of a legitimate sexual harassment complaint. But the problem is that most of these items, taken in isolation, are almost impossible to ever constitute sexual harassment, and with many of them, the suggestion that they might be sexual harassment represents a danger to academic freedom and free speech due to the vagueness of the description.

But it doesn’t excuse FIRE’s hyperbolic rhetoric. CSU-Chico has had a clear-cut policy on sexual harassment that strictly follows federal regulations and gets a “green light” ranking from FIRE itself.

Sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when:

  1. Submission to such conduct is explicitly or implicitly a term of condition of employment, academic grade, or enrollment;
  2. Submission to such conduct is used as the basis for employment or education decisions;
  3. Such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work/academic performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working or educational environment.

The fact that CSU-Chico had (or used to have) flawed descriptions online giving misguided advice for avoiding sexual harassment doesn’t change those excellent policies. There’s a fundamental difference between a formal policy and some papers on a website.

In my 2008 book, Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies, I examined the handful of colleges given a “green light” endorsement by FIRE and found severe restrictions on free speech in the codes at all of them. As I argued in that book, and my first book, The Myth of Political Correctness, the fact that flawed speech codes exist is a problem, but the real danger comes from how they are enforced.

And while FIRE claims that the danger at CSU-Chico “is anything but hypothetical,” it does seem to be hypothetical here. There are no examples of anyone wrongly punished or even threatened for the explanations rightly criticized by FIRE.

To call some statements on a website that aren’t even a real policy one of the “worst speech codes” in America is simply ridiculous. We need to fix bad speech codes, and encourage colleges not to make misleading documents that don’t reflect the official policies. But misleading people about speech codes and exaggerating the threat doesn’t help accomplish this.

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