The Price of Civil Society


Universities around North America have adopted harassment codes which tell students what they may not say. Central to them is a politically correct double standard.

It's called “The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses” (Free Press),it was written by Alan Charles Kors, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, and Harvey A. Silverglate, a defence lawyer, and it's a book that should disturb anyone who believes in free speech.

The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses by Alan Charles Kors, Free Press, (1999), 432pp.

Its thesis, discussed here with Prof. Kors, is that virtually every university in the United States not only favours political correctness but enforces it through a variety of means, including speech codes that prohibit any expression that might possibly offend a member of a minority group.

Q: Dr. Kors, you co-authored a book called “The Shadow University” in which you talk about virtual speech codes, even though universities don't refer to them that way. Can you explain what you mean by that term?

A: Universities have imported from employment regulations harassment codes that prohibit the creation of a hostile environment by verbal conduct and verbal behaviour. For ordinary human beings, verbal conduct and verbal behaviour have a very simple name: speech. These are imposed upon students even though they are not the employees of the university. They are its customers and clients.

Q: What is the nature of these codes?

A: They tell students what they may not say, but central to them is the double standard that applies at virtually every university. If a feminist professor were accused of making a conservative male feel that he was in a hostile environment, the code would tumble in one hour. The only thing that allows the codes to exist is a double standard that teaches contempt for the most essential American political values, equality and liberty before the law.

Q: Could you give an example of what is meant by “hostile work environment”?

A: I defended a student of the University of Pennsylvania who shouted at a group of women who turned out to be black sorority members, “Shut up, you water buffalo,” when they were celebrating a sorority event beneath his dormitory window at 1 a.m. If “water buffalo” can be called racial harassment, anything can be called racial harassment, but one must understand just how vague these speech codes are. At Bowdoin College [in Maine], harassment is anything “experienced by others as harassing.”

Q: You give one example in your book of someone laughing at a joke about homosexuals and then being required to write a paper.

A: It wasn't even a joke. It was a comment, and he laughed, and Sarah Lawrence College [in New York] decided that his laughter created a hostile environment. He was sentenced to see a movie on so-called homophobia, read a book on homophobia and write an essay on homophobia.

Now, let's imagine, so that we can see the double standard, that in the midst of a pro-choice rally, feminists held up a sign saying, “Keep your rosaries off our ovaries,” and someone laughed at that. One, the idea that this would ever be prosecuted is unthinkable at any university—neither the sign nor the laughter. Two, the notion that the writer of the sign or someone that laughed would be sentenced to the Catholic centre or an evangelical Christian centre for sensitivity training in matters of Christian faith is not only unthinkable, but the university walls would crumble; the faculty would be out on strike and there would be a day of shame forever on the university calendar.

Q: What are some of the other kinds of penalties that students face when they violate these rules?

A: This is an extremely important question because the penalties that students face range up to suspension and expulsion. As a result of that, students charged with politically incorrect crimes almost always accept a settlement, and those settlements involve not only acknowledging against one's conscience the point of view of one's persecutors but, indeed, accepting thought reform.

Undergoing mandatory sensitivity training is more appropriate to the institutions of North Korea and of China during the Cultural Revolution than to the universities of a free society.

Imagine if during the McCarthy period people not only were subject to investigations and prosecutions for their private political beliefs, or indeed their public political beliefs, but that they were asked to undergo thought reform in Americanism. We would be talking about that still as the high-water mark of American oppression.

Well, in fact, that kind of intrusion upon the sanctity of private conscience is a central part of judicial systems at our universities. They have the effrontery to call it “educational remediation” or “sensitivity training,” but whenever you hear the word “training” used in matters of the mind and spirit, hide anyone you love. It is thought reform, and it is a violation of the most essential American right, the privacy of conscience.

Q: What is the rationale of administrators for these rules?

A: The public justification is that, in order to have a university community in which education can occur, people have to be civil. The way to see through that justification is that no one has ever been asked to be civil toward evangelical Christians or toward conservatives. You may call any black Republican an “Uncle Tom” or any American of Asian descent with white friends a “banana” or a “Twinkie,” meaning yellow on the outside and white on the inside. These are never prosecuted.

Q: Even if there were no double standards, wouldn't these speech codes be an infringement on liberty?

A: It still would be the end of free speech and the end of open inquiry at our universities. We would be teaching contempt for the Bill of Rights. The rationale has been precisely to create double standards. Privately, what university administrators will say to critics of their policy, such as myself, is that there are historically disadvantaged groups on our campuses that must be protected.

Q: What this seems to point to is a strong leftist ideology among these administrators. Is that a correct surmise?

A: I think that there are strong sympathies toward the left among campus administrators at the highest levels, but what truly drives them is administrative careerism—the desire to appear competent and to have quiet on their watch.

If someone told them that they had upset the campus Lutherans or the college Republicans, this would not send a shiver of fear up and down administrative spines. But if they are told that they have upset militant groups capable of causing disorder on their campus, that does create a reflex of fear.

Q: So it's a mixture of cowardice and ideology and a lack of respect for liberty?

A: Yes, lack of respect for liberty, legal equality and individual identity. Note that what also underlies our speech codes and selective enforcement and thought reform is the view that students do not come to American universities as equal individuals, but as representatives of groups defined by blood.

We are the first Western university system since Nazi Germany's to identify blood with culture. That is a scandal that should outrage every American who believes in the vision of a society with equal civil rights.

Q: I would like you to expand on those words. Why should someone care that someone who laughs at a comment about homosexuals, then has to write an essay? How serious is this?

A: People should care on the grounds of inequality and an assault on freedom. The most ardent defender of gay rights ought to care passionately. The struggle for civil rights in this country is the struggle to bring all people into the light of equal protection of the law, and into the light of the Bill of Rights.

When a code favours a homosexual with special protections at a university, you do not have an equal system. Your primary identity is as a homosexual. Your rights will be defined on the basis of your sexuality. That is something that ought to terrify people who see themselves as defending the marginalized, because the rights of the marginalized in America depend on a national consensus of equality before the law.

Q: Are the universities imbuing their students with this way of looking at civil life? A: They certainly are imbuing some students with that. But what ought equally to concern us is that students who are appalled by this generally do not speak out. They accept impositions upon their equality and dignity without protest.

Q: You said early on that this was at most universities. Is it that extensive?

A: Yes, it certainly is at most universities, and if you examine their Web pages and look at the word “multicultural” or “diversity” or “code of conduct,” you find that “multicultural” simply means so-called minority cultures, that “diversity” never means political and religious diversity and that speech codes are almost never honestly labelled.

Q: Why don't faculties intervene?

A: The cowardice of faculties is one of the most disturbing features of this age on our universities. Also, the reason we call this the “shadow” university is that so much of it happens without faculty awareness. Even opponents and critics of political correctness know nothing about their campus judicial systems, selective enforcement of campus speech codes, politicized freshman orientations or the ideological litmus tests for the choice of resident advisers in the dormitories.

Q: At public universities, isn't this effort to curb free speech unconstitutional?

A: It is, and where it has been challenged, as in Michigan and Wisconsin, the federal courts easily and quickly have struck it down as unconstitutional. The problem is that very few students come to a university and say, “This is the perfect place to litigate for three years.” A student coming to a university wants a degree and the options that that degree makes possible. It is very rare that a student will challenge the constitutionality of a speech code at a public university, though wherever it has happened, that student has won. At private universities, these codes are perfectly legal. A private, voluntary association may establish whatever rules within the law it chooses, but they are falsely advertised at most of our secular universities. They present themselves as not discriminating by race or by gender or by ethnicity, and they engage in that discrimination from day one. It's fraud.

Q: What can be done about it? Take them to court?

A: I think the courts always should be a last resort and that the most desirable option is to expose the enormity of these crimes against essential American values, because colleges and universities are unable to defend what they do in public.

Q: Is there any reason to believe that, if universities did not in fact compose these kinds of codes, certain minority groups would suffer unendurable abuse?

A: I think the opposite is the case. The more that universities coerce and socially engineer human relations, the worse things become. Since the University of Pennsylvania abandoned its speech code and its coercion of undergraduate life, human relations seem to me to have distinctly improved and the atmosphere of tension to have dissipated.

If you welcome people as mutually exclusive groups of people settling the scores of history, they are not going to get along. If you welcome people as free and equal individuals, and you do not set a police-state example, but a moral example by your own behaviour, human relationships improve.

Q: What does this infringement on freedom mean to us human beings?

A: It is our freedom that defines us as moral beings with responsibility and capable of choice. A police state and coercion take away from us all of our deeper resources of moral witness, of persuasion over coercion, of standing for the things that we believe and opposing the things that we abhor. A police state is a very easy way to end the messy sides of freedom.

The only price you pay is the dignity and moral reality of the human soul.


Ambrose, Jay. “The Price of Civil Society.” Globe and Mail, 9 January, 1999.

Reprinted with permission of Jay Ambrose.


Jay Ambrose is chief editorial writer for Scripps Howard News Service in Washington, D.C. He has served as editor of two daily newspapers, including the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, Colo., and has won a number of awards for his writing.

Copyright © 1999 Jay Ambrose Globe & Mail

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