Delaware Free Speech Issues?

The conservative blogosphere is really excited about a possible free speech issue at the University of Delaware. The claim has appeared on Marginal Revolution (with a responsible request for firsthand accounts), and is even getting spammed places (as in this CrookedTimber thread). There are probably hundreds of blog posts around the tubes at this point, almost all in conservative rags (I mean no negative implications there, that’s just for context). I’m not sure I can do justice to their outrage, so let me just quote:

“NEWARK, Del., October 30, 2007—The University of Delaware subjects students in its residence halls to a shocking program of ideological reeducation that is referred to in the university’s own materials as a “treatment” for students’ incorrect attitudes and beliefs. The Orwellian program requires the approximately 7,000 students in Delaware’s residence halls to adopt highly specific university-approved views on issues ranging from politics to race, sexuality, sociology, moral philosophy, and environmentalism. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is calling for the total dismantling of the program, which is a flagrant violation of students’ rights to freedom of conscience and freedom from compelled speech.” (FIRE press release)

It seems evident that Delaware has at the least, a ham-handed sort of residential education and diversity policy. It also seems clear that a presentation occurred in which the speaker claimed that whites were racists by definition and that it was impossible for minorities to be racist. In the Marginal Revolution comments, a former RA quite plausibly claimed that this was an outside speaker, not someone presenting part of the curriculum designed by Delaware.

Nonetheless, the whole affair strikes me as fishy. First of all, there appears to be very little student participation–instead almost everything seems to be coming from FIRE, the group that was quoted before. FIRE is not necessarily partisan–their website includes a couple of free speech issues which concern suppression of liberal oriented speech (kudos!). However, they are an outside group, and the contemporary dynamics of academic politics make me extremely suspicious of outside groups intervening in campus politics, unless they are obviously there in support of a pre-existing student reaction. However, I have not been able to find any evidence of public comment or reaction at Delaware.

In particular, I see no articles on the Delaware student newspaper. Perhaps they’re being suppressed, though the newspaper calls itself independent. Or perhaps, a la Occam’s razor, there are no stories because the students do not see themselves as victims of indoctrination. Obviously organizations like FIRE should be there to support students who are being treated unfairly, but it seems a relevant condition that the students find their treatment to be worth protesting (I was told students would be on Hannity and Colmes, but it was while I was in class, and can’t find it on the Fox website, so I don’t know one way or another).

One account by an RA that I have found falls far short of FIRE’s accusations (he says FIRE is justified, but does not support their specific accusations–even appearing to contradict several). FIRE claims to have a number of student comments (anonymous and signed), but most of what they have posted is quite vague. Take one comment:

“In one activity we were required to agree or disagree with a statement, when asked if we could abstain or be neutral, our RA promptly said that she would not proceed with the activity until everyone had taken a side. The flaw in this program was that on more than one occasion I found myself to be neutral on the statement she gave, but the nature of the program prevented me from expressing my view and forced me to take a side that I did not agree with.”

Sacre Bleu! What next, will they try…pedagogy? I haven’t been teaching long, but allow me to let the student in on a secret: you will often be asked to come down on one side or another of an issue, since we know that half of you are scared to death of ever expressing or defending an opinion on any subject.

There are, to be clear, legitimate complaints contained in those comments, and the program does come out looking silly, unjustified, and quite uncomfortable for many students. Nonetheless, FIRE and the legion of internet trolls are throwing around allusions to 1984 and Orwell, Cuba and Red China (FIRE typically includes thought control or indoctrination in article titles).

As I write, I see that Delaware has halted its residential life program, and I see no reason to be sad about that. Nonetheless, the dynamic that I saw in the past three days was nothing short of bizarre, and if I’m right about the ratio of student anger to internet anger, quite disturbing.

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2 responses to “Delaware Free Speech Issues?

  1. You really should check out the youtube videos on this topic. They include first hand accounts of just how terrible the case was at the University of Delaware.

  2. So, first off, it’s been almost two years since I thought about this.

    Still, rereading the post, something about its tone strikes me as unreasonably skeptical. I would say it’s always better to feature students within the university commenting on the situation where possible. I take it that’s the youtube videos you mention–I couldn’t find them at the time.