Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times is one of my favorite newspaper columnists. This week he ran an excellent piece on what I’ve started calling the emerging “civility doctrine” in higher education. Here are some excerpts:
When someone in power praises the principle of free speech, it’s wise to be on the lookout for weasel words. The phrase “I favor constructive criticism,” is weaseling. So is, “You can express your views as long as they’re respectful.” In those examples, “constructive” and “respectful” are modifiers concealing that the speaker really doesn’t favor free speech at all.
The targets of free speech never think it’s constructive or respectful. Quite the contrary. . . .
A major problem with using words like “respect” and “civility” to mark the boundaries of free speech protections is that they don’t have fixed definitions. One person can be deeply affronted (or claim to be) by language that another finds perfectly innocuous. And it’s one thing to set standards for expression in private forums — comment pages on websites, for example — and quite another to impose them as conditions for legal protection of free speech. . . .
Insistence on “civility” is a weapon, and it’s almost always wielded by those in power against those whose free speech needs protection.
Calling civility “the biggest weasel word of all,” Hiltzik specifically takes on both UIUC Chancellor Wise in the Salaita case and UC Berkeley Chancellor Dirks, employing the words of Berkeley Free Speech Movement icon Mario Savio to turn the tables on the latter’s attempt to “commemorate” that movement by claiming free speech and civility to be “two sides of the same coin.”
You can (and should) read the entire piece here: http://www.latimes.com/business/hiltzik/la-fi-mh-free-speech-civility-20140909-column.html