UMASS-AMHERST

Muzzle Awards 2011 Umass Amherst 

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is arguably the freest political entity in the world. Yet its flagship campus is a perennial Muzzle favorite.

This year, however, UMass's Muzzle is not a done deal — yet. We're hoping it won't be awarded next year.

The trouble derives from proposed changes, currently under consideration, to the school's Code of Student Conduct. In April, UMass released a deeply troubling draft version.

One proposal mandates that students uphold "civility," "social justice," and "social responsibility." There's nothing inherently wrong with these values. But forcing students to embrace them is an assault on freedom of conscience. As the Supreme Court made clear in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), "no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion." UMass is no exception.

Other proposed changes are equally disturbing. A prohibition on "bullying" — defined as causing "emotional harm" through "written, verbal, or electronic expression" — threatens to quell much innocuous expression. Lacking a "reasonable person" standard, the feelings of the most sensitive determine what speech is punishable.

Consider what such a prohibition could reach. In late February, a student columnist for the Massachusetts Daily Collegian penned a conservative diatribe that railed against Planned Parenthood and sexual promiscuity, blaming rape victims for drinking and flirting. The columnist, and the editor who signed off on the piece, were fired by the student-run newspaper. Were a "bullying" prohibition to be enacted, one shudders to think of what types of provocative opinions would be punished for inflicting "emotional harm."

To UMass's credit, Associate Chancellor Susan Pearson said that anti-censorship critiques were being given serious consideration. Apprehension remains until the final product emerges. Stay tuned.

Harvey Silverglate is the co-author of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses, and is chairman of the Board of Directors of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Research assistants Daniel Schwartz, Andrew Bruss, and Kyle Smeallie contributed.

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