Nebraska Tells Students What They Must Believe – “Nonnegotiable” – As With Rutgers, Only “Nice” and Approved Speech is to be Tolerated  

WASHINGTON, D.C. (September 2, 2016): The University of Nebraska Lincoln has issued a set of “belief statements” to students, with warnings that students should not say or do things which aren’t consistent with what it called a “nonnegotiable” list of expected beliefs.

Chancellor Ronnie Green minced no words in proclaiming that “we insist upon a culture of respect,” and “we do not tolerate actions of hate and disrespect.”  “We take action when we observe something or someone being treated unfairly or in a demeaning manner. It’s our core belief as a university here at the University of Nebraska. It’s nonnegotiable. That’s who we are,” he announced.

At about the same time, Students at Rutgers University are being told that they should speak only when it is “helpful” and “necessary,” and then only if what they say is “nice.”

University of Nebraska Lincoln
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
University of Nebraska Lincoln

Otherwise, they are subject to being reported anonymously to a “Bias Prevention Education Team” for re-education through 60-90 minute workshops and perhaps other sanctions, notes public interest law professor, who successfully fought against a similar program at George Washington University [GWU] where anonymous complaints, even of just being “rude,” could trigger a major investigation.

This new campaign is not surprising, says Banzhaf, because Rutgers – unlike many other universities – appears to have no code or statement of student rights guaranteeing students any rights related to free speech, or other commonly accepted aspects of academic freedom.

Indeed, the university expressly warns students that “[t]here is no such thing as ‘free’ speech.”

Instead, Rutgers has a vague and ambiguous code prohibiting saying anything “likely to cause alarm” – term which is nowhere defined, but which could, according to the new policy, include asking a student where they are from, or complementing a student for being strong.

The policies at both universities should, however, by matters of grave concern, argues Banzhaf, because as public universities, they are bound by the First Amendment which protects virtually all speech, including even hateful speech.  As courts have frequently put it, there is no “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment.

It should especially be a matter of grave concern to the professors at the two law schools who teach constitutional law and free speech.

But they seem to be raising no objections when violations of important legal constitutional guarantees they teach about and supposedly hold dear are violated under their noses at institutions where they have some influence, and in most cases the tenure to protect them if they speak out.

This “nice” speech policy, which contains a long list of words students should avoid saying because they might possibly cause some offense to a tiny minority, is of course not unique to Rutgers.

Even at Harvard, a leading institution for academic freedom, law professors have been asked not to use the word “violated” – even in the sense of asking whether a law was violated – because a victim of sexual assault might become upset.  Some Harvard professors, even female ones, have stopped teaching rape as part of criminal law because of such concerns about sensitivity.

The problem, says Banzhaf, is that discussions of many controversial issues which really should be discussed may involve statements which could offend others.  Despite urgent calls for more dialogue about race, any mention of “white privilege,” the black crime rate, affirmative action, etc. can offend someone.

If law students cannot discuss or even study rape at law school, they will be ill prepared to handle such cases in practice.  Moreover, as legislators and legislative aides, they can’t effectively fix the law if they don’t understand it, and most law students are very confused about the law of rape, says Banzhaf.

JOHN F. BANZHAF III, B.S.E.E., J.D., Sc.D.

Professor of Public Interest Law

George Washington University Law School,

FAMRI Dr. William Cahan Distinguished Professor,

Fellow, World Technology Network,

Founder, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH)

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