The proposed intolerance policy at the University of California is a badly written, repressive, and fundamentally misguided policy that any true university should be embarrassed to even consider adopting.
Universities are free to express collective values so long as they do not seek to punish those who disagree. But they ought to be careful in how they do this, because the institutional expression of values can have a chilling effect on campus debate. So, even if this policy clearly protected free speech on campus, it’s still a bad idea because it tries to stigmatize criticism of other people’s beliefs. But it doesn’t clearly protect free speech.
The policy declares, “Intolerance has no place at the University of California. We define intolerance as unwelcome conduct motivated by discrimination against, or hatred toward, other individuals or groups.” It includes “hate speech” and “derogatory language reflecting stereotypes or prejudice.”
Let me illustrate my own personal intolerance: I hate stupid racists. I do not welcome their stupid racism because I feel hatred toward stupid racists.
I believe that I have fully met all the criteria of intolerance defined by this policy. My hatred is unwelcome by stupid racists, it is motivated by hatred, and includes derogatory language reflecting prejudice against stupid racists. Now, the Regents and the university are technically obligated under this policy to condemn me and defend the right of stupid racists not to face my intolerance.
And the same goes for anyone criticizing the crazy right-wing Christians who oppose gay rights, for anyone criticizing terrorists who mentions their religious beliefs, for anyone condemning people of another faith as going to hell, and a vast range of widely believed opinions. Basically, the only people who aren’t intolerant against someone under this policy are mindless morons.
The policy also doesn’t what rights are: “Everyone in the University community has the right to study, teach, conduct research, and work free from acts and expressions of intolerance.”
No, they don’t. No one has the right to be free from expressions of intolerance, except for those unfortunate enough to be under the power of repressive institutions. Does an African-American have the right not to hear pro-slavery ideas in a history class? Does a woman have the right not to hear sexist views in a film class? Does a white student have a right not hear the view of the Black Panthers? Does anybody have the right to never be offended by intolerant speech? No, they do not.
Some parts of the policy may make people think that it protects freedom on campus: “This statement of principles applies to attacks on individuals or groups and does not apply to the free exchange of ideas in keeping with the principles of academic freedom and free speech.”
This is utter nonsense. The free exchange of ideas under the principles of academic freedom and free speech without the slightest doubt applies to verbal attacks on individuals and groups. This is one of many contradictory claims in the document that tend to confuse everyone.
The statement does protect “conduct that is related to the course content, teaching methods, scholarship, or public commentary of an individual faculty member or the educational, political, artistic, or literary expression of students in classrooms and public forums that is protected by academic freedom or free speech principles.”
This is all very strange. A professor or a student is allowed to be hateful and intolerant in the classroom, but not in a private conversation. An intolerant conversation between a professor or a student is fully protected if it happens in class or via Twitter, but not if it happens in the professor’s office or via email.
Some may think that statement is harmless because it states that it “shall not be used as the basis to discipline students, faculty, or staff.”
But discipline is not precisely the same as punishment. Discipline is a subset of punishment. Discipline is a very specific set of policies outlined in the document.
You can punish someone without disciplining them. You can give them a bad grade. You can refuse to hire them. You can deny them tenure or a promotion. All of these appear to be permissible because they are not covered by any of the discipline policies listed.
Under this proposed policy, for example, the Regents at the University of California could reasonably be obligated to refuse to hire Steven Salaita for his allegedly intolerant views, but only if someone discovered a personal email where Salaita expressed the same views as he did in his Twitter account.
This is a very dumb policy, and it needs to be scrapped. The misguided basic premise, the contradictory statements, the flawed standards for enforcement, and the dangers of misinterpretation and abuse all make this policy fundamentally unfixable.