RALEIGH—This February, when an English instructor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill singled out a student by name in a classwide email to denounce his comments in class as “hate speech,” the student complained publicly — and brought harsh criticism upon the university.
When UNC-Chapel Hill officials, including the head of the English Dept. and the chancellor, apologized for the incident, made it plain that the instructor’s actions were unacceptable, saw the instructor apologize, and chose to monitor the instructor and class, the controversy should have died. The principles of academic freedom and students’ rights appeared to have carried the day.
Instead, word came to UNC-CH in late March that the U.S. Dept. of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, at the prompting of U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, will investigate the incident for possible harassment and discrimination against the student based on his race or sex. So the thought police — even at the price of one of their own — seize a share of the victory as well. The upshot of this incident is that it doesn’t signal an end to “hate crime” witch hunts for the farces they are, after all.
It started the day Elyse Crystall asked her English 022 class to discuss the leading question, “Why do heterosexual men feel threatened by homosexuals?” One student, Tim, disagreed with the question’s basis but added, “I have a heterosexual friend, Joe, in California, who was hit on by a homosexual man and he got a love letter from him. He did not feel threatened, he just felt disgusted and dirty because this was the first time this happened to him.” He also told the class, “Being a Christian, I would feel uncomfortable having to explain to my son at a baseball game why two homosexual men are kissing” and said he could only imagine the word “threatened” being used “in the context of life in gay marriage because homosexual marriages don’t produce life like heterosexual marriages do.”
What Crystall wrote afterward was appalling. Writing that she “will not tolerate any racist, sexist, and/or heterosexist comments in my class,” Crystall said, in reference to “the comments tim made,” that “what we heard thursday at the end of class constitutes ‘hate speech’ and is completely unacceptable.” She furthermore wrote that “what we experienced, as unforuntate as it is, is, however, a perfect example of privilege. that a white, heterosexual, christian male, one who vehemently denied his privilege last week insisting that he earned all he has, can feel entitled to make violent, heterosexist comments and not feel marked or threatened or vulnerable is what privilege makes possible” (all quotations sic — perhaps capital letters are thought to denote privilege, too).
Crystall’s discussion of Tim’s “privilege” was clearly based upon her own prejudice against Tim according to his race, sexual preference, religion, and gender. Thus the investigation. As Jones argued, if Tim’s traits had been different, the OCR would surely get involved. Just imagine the outcry if an instructor criticized a student by name for uttering a “perfect example” of what a “black, lesbian atheist” like her would say.
But the outcry is exactly the point. There would be plenty, just as there was here. And the outcry, if not the initial knowledge of the incident, proved forceful enough to prompt the university to take the right steps to address the matter on its own. The feds simply aren’t necessary. They might even be dangerous.
This case involves no small irony. Crystall’s email was sent explicitly to counter the “hate speech” uttered in her class, and in her role as instructor she hearkened to the same assumptions about speech that the OCR will use in investigating her class. That is, she equates offensive speech based on race, gender, sexual preference, &c., with actual violence, harmful because the speaker holds a position of “privilege” or power.
To be sure, Crystall’s comments are not at all unusual in the world of academe. Orwellian screech owls like her infest higher education, ever attuned to detecting and swooping on even the slightest trespasses against what North Carolina State University’s “Office for Equal Opportunity” calls the “Protected Classes.” However difficult it is for someone on the outside understand it, to them Tim’s act of relating a friend’s feelings of disgust for having been propositioned by another man is a most awful thing, creating “an unsafe environment” and so forth. Sticks and stones may break bones, but words and thoughts are violence.
Crystall, by the way, remains steeped in this delusion. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education online March 29, she “noted that while the government could investigate her remarks as racist or sexist, it would not investigate the student’s as homophobic.” She apparently still desires Tim to “feel marked or threatened or vulnerable” for daring to address the topic of discussion from the “wrong” point of view.
All this makes it tempting to view this pending OCR investigation as just desserts, a chance to see one of the thought police hoist by her own petard. However satisfying the thought, it’s the wrong way to view it. Instead try two wrongs don’t make a right.
The proper remedy for offensive speech — even where there is a “power” imbalance, such as between a professor and a student — is more speech. More speech had already carried the day in Chapel Hill: the student spoke out about his treatment, his story resounded, articles and editorials were written, letters were penned, phone calls were made, and the university was properly chagrined. The correct conclusion to an unfortunate speech incident came about, not with federal involvement, but with public involvement. The people spoke, and they awoke within the university that age-old, internal prompt to corrective action: shame.
The feds have no such power. When they speak, what stirs is the same old box-checking, bureaucratic beast already lumbering about. Enough incidents such as Crystall’s and folks won’t be able to recount anecdotes involving “white, heterosexual, Christian males” either. When the feds speak, speech contracts as the list of Unmentionables grows.
This incident had proven the truth of Justice Brandeis’ observation that “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Nevertheless, one can spot, gathering on the horizon, those all-too-familiar storm clouds.