While they are rightfully accused of being hyper-politically correct, college campuses these days sometimes seem downright Victorian. Take, for example, the case of Isaac Rosenbloom, a student whose quest to complete college so he could become a paramedic was nearly ended after he complained to another student about an assignment after class. Rosenbloom told his classmate that the grade he got on the assignment was “going to fuck up my entire GPA.” When his professor overheard him, she threatened the 29-year-old father of two with (I kid you not) “detention.” Rosenbloom was brought up under the charge of “flagrant disrespect of any person” — an actual offense at Hinds Community College in Mississippi. Check out Isaac’s story in this new video:
One might think that such a ridiculous incident would quickly resolve itself as soon as the charges got in front of the university counsel. But one would be wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong. Ignoring cases like Cohen v. California (1971) and, even more on point, Papish v. Board of Curators (1973), the administration went ahead with a surreal hearing. Rosenbloom was found guilty of “flagrant disrespect,” given 12 “demerits,” and was no longer eligible for his Pell Grant (which effectively meant expulsion for Rosenbloom). The university only backed down after my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), found a lawyer for Rosenbloom and secured a favorable settlement in July 2010.
Cases like this are not rare on campus. Indeed, just as the Isaac Rosenbloom case was ending, the perhaps even sillier swearing case of Jacob Lovell at the University of Georgia was just beginning (you can watch a video about his case here, complete with Lex Luthor allusions). As I pointed out last fall when I unveiled a video about a professor who vandalized a “free speech wall” in Texas because someone had written “fuck Obama” on it, if there is one thing that seems to unite the right and left on campus, it is that some subset of both groups really, really hate swearing. Because of this fact, unfortunately, campus administrators are too often able to get away with punishing students for cases that involve swearing.
I tried to call out this practice in my book Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate. While swearing is sometimes the purported justification for punishment, it is clear that in case after case students are not really being punished for swearing, they are being punished because they swore in the process of complaining about the university.
Lately it seems as though the “campus censors as Victorians” theme is popping up all over the country. Just last month one college in upstate New York banned a campus event involving a gay porn star, another college in New Mexico shut down the student newspaper after its editors produced an issue about sex, and in an ongoing saga, a professor at Appalachian State University was suspended after showing a graphic video that was critical of the adult film industry.
Today’s campus censors appear to be haunted by the spirit of Anthony Comstock, and they’re likely to have the same level of success in the long run that Comstock did. But in the meantime, these efforts to appease the uptight are doing real damage by harming discourse on campus, impoverishing the marketplace of ideas, and making higher education just a little bit dumber.
Greg Lukianoff is an attorney and the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.