State Rep. Matt Manweller keeps finding new anecdotes to add to a Microsoft Word document he’s titled, “Academic Horror Stories.”
The file contains links to articles about recent controversies at U.S. college campuses, which the Republican from Ellensburg says illustrate a troubling trend: Today’s college students are increasingly being shielded from potentially offensive ideas, he says, at the expense of others’ free speech rights.
Take an incident last year at Washington State University, where one professor’s syllabus originally said students couldn’t use “generally offensive language” — terms such as “illegal alien,” “tranny” or even “male” and “female” — without getting points docked off their grade, or possibly failing the class.
Or another policy currently in effect at WSU, which limits public demonstrations to certain parts of campus, while saying students must apply to use the “limited public forums” two weeks in advance.
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Manweller is sponsoring a bill in the Legislature this year that aims to push back against such policies while protecting college instructors whose course content includes material that some students might find offensive. He’s calling it an academic bill of rights.
“I think there is a growing concern, on the broader 30,000-foot level, that universities have become so concerned with the notion of safe spaces and not being offensive to anyone, that they’ve lost their primary mission, which is to introduce students to ideas that they might not be comfortable with,” said Manweller, a professor of political science at Central Washington University.
Manweller cited a University of Missouri professor’s attempt to kick journalists out of a student protest area in November as another example of student-coddling gone amok. During protests of race-related incidents at the campus, student activists tried to block the demonstration area as a “safe space,” despite it being a central part of the public university campus.
Other Republican lawmakers share some of Manweller’s fears that free speech is being stifled on some college campuses.
Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, said that concern is part of why he introduced a bill this year that would prevent school administrators from controlling content in school newspapers.
Fain, the majority floor leader in the state Senate, said he lately feels “there is a lot of sanitizing of education at all levels.”
“For me, it’s a larger more cultural issue about freedom of speech,” he said. “I think that we often find a lot of competing values that look to threaten freedom of speech, because of wanting to maintain order or not hurt someone’s feelings or not offend someone.
“We need to be open to allowing others to share with us views that we might not agree with.”
Fain’s proposal, Senate Bill 6233, is focused on ensuring that high school and college newspapers aren’t subject to prior review and censorship by school officials.
Manweller’s bill is further-reaching. It would define all outdoor areas at public colleges as traditional public forums — which have the greatest free speech protections under the First Amendment — while ensuring that people could assemble there at a moment’s notice.
Additionally, the measure would ban the state’s institutions of higher education from punishing students or faculty for expressing unpopular academic views.
It also would prohibit requirements that instructors use “trigger warnings” — alerts that warn students in advance about potentially controversial course content.
Some college faculty and university administrators said they don’t see a need for the bill.
At WSU, for instance, university administrators intervened shortly after learning of professors who last year tried to ban certain words in their classes, said Chris Mulick, a lobbyist for the university.
The university’s interim president issued a statement clarifying that, according to WSU policy, professors can’t lower students’ grades for using words that the professors deemed offensive.
“The fact that university policy had to be enforced is in no way a sign that university policy is broken, or in any way inadequate,” Mulick said last week at a public hearing for Manweller’s House Bill 2488. “To the contrary, this instance demonstrated how university policy, administered locally, worked.”
When it comes to limiting where students can protest on campus, WSU officials said they are reviewing their current policy, including the requirement that students give two weeks notice before staging a public demonstration.
(The policy does allow some demonstrations to be staged on campus with less notice, an official said, if the gathering doesn’t conflict with another event in the same location.)
University officials said some restrictions on public events will remain necessary to ensure public safety, as well as to avoid disrupting classes.
“We have live, wild animals on campus, we have public sporting events,” said Kimberly Anderson, director of WSU’s Office for Equal Opportunity. “There are some areas where we would need to have broader discretion.”
Sara Singleton, an associate professor of political science at Western Washington University, said she, too, thinks existing policies do a good enough job of protecting free speech rights on campus.
When testifying on Manweller’s bill last week, Singleton spoke on behalf of the roughly 6,000 faculty members at the state’s four-year universities.
A part of Manweller’s bill that has drawn heavy criticism is a section that would define “microagresssions” and prohibit institutions from punishing faculty or students for using them. Several people said that section of the bill could inadvertently legalize harassment or discrimination on university and college campuses.
In its current form, the bill would define microagressions as including “brief verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that are perceived to communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, or sexual orientation, or religious slights and insults to the target person or group.”
Manweller said he’s happy to change the language to ensure that the term applies more narrowly to subtle slights — such as asking a person if he or she is married, a question some might view as offensive.