Earlier this month, Nadine Strossen, one of the most accomplished legal professionals of her generation, used a speaking engagement at Harvard University to decry pervasive speech restrictions on college campuses, arguing that intolerance for controversial views is greater now than at any time in memory.
Strossen has been a close observer of debates over speech on campus for decades. In graduate school she edited the Harvard Law Review. In 1991, she became the first woman to lead the American Civil Liberties Union, a position she held for 17 years. A staunch feminist, she found time in 2001 to perform as a guest star in a Broadway production of The Vagina Monologues. She is now a professor of law at New York Law School.
After declaring that there are many worrying abrogations of free speech on campus, she focused her remarks at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy on the way sexual-harassment law is being used to punish protected speech, including classroom instruction. “The most egregious recent example is the prolonged sexual harassment investigation that Northwestern University conducted against film professor Laura Kipnis earlier this year because of an article that she published in The Chronicle of Higher Education in which, ironically, she criticized the exaggerated, distorted concept of sexual harassment that is prevalent on campus,” she opined before giving other examples of excesses:
The Naval War College placed a professor on administrative leave and demanded that he apologize because during a lecture that critically described Machiavelli's views about leadership he paraphrased Machiavelli's comments about raping the goddess Fortuna. In another example, the University of Denver suspended a tenured professor and found him guilty of sexual harassment for teaching about sexual topics in a graduate-level course in a course unit entitled Drugs and Sin in American Life From Masturbation and Prostitution to Alcohol and Drugs.
A sociology professor at Appalachian State University was suspended because she showed a documentary film that critically examined the adult film industry.
A sociology professor at the University of Colorado was forced to retire early because of a class in her course on deviance in which volunteer student assistants played roles in a scripted skit about prostitution.
A professor of English and Film Studies at San Bernardino Valley College was punished for requiring his class to write essays defining pornography. And yes, that was defining it, not defending it.
This summer, Louisiana State University fired a tenured professor of early childhood education who has received multiple teaching awards because she occasionally used vulgar language and humor about sex when she was teaching about sexuality and also to capture her student's attention.
And I could go on.
In her judgment, this trend is a consequence of the notion that illegal sexual harassment extends to campus speech with any sexual content that anyone finds offensive.