If you walk into the president’s office in A-201, you can pick up a pamphlet entitled “Don’t let the Haters Win,” which encourages students to report campus bias incidents and hate crimes. “When a hate crime or bias incident occurs on a college campus,” it reads, “the ideal of a college as a place for learning and growth is disrupted.” These incidents impair the college mission and “deprive everyone of the chance to learn and work in an atmosphere free of fear and intimidation.”
Hate crimes are recognized at the national and state level, but what is a bias incident? According to the pamphlet, there are several factors in determining whether someone’s speech or action constitutes a bias incident. The ones listed are evidence that the act was motivated by bias of some sort, the victim’s perception that the act was motivated by bias, and links between known hate groups and the person accused of the incident.
Here’s the problem: it is very difficult, if not impossible, to prove someone’s motives without hooking them up to an FMRI brain-scanner or polygraph machine. While the third reason – affiliation with a known hate group – is a valid source of evidence for such accusations, it is often easy for the accused to dissociate themselves from said group if there ever was a connection in the first place. Often, there never was.
This leaves us with factor number two, victim perception, which poses an enormous problem. Bias incidents are subjective – what offends one person may not offend someone else, particularly when race and religion are involved. “The college’s highest concern is for the emotional and physical well being of persons affected by a bias-motivated incident or crime,” says the pamphlet. That’s all quite noble at first, but what are you going to do when someone gets offended by “Huckleberry Finn?”
Mark Twain’s classic is the most banned book in America. Other commonly banned books, for fear of offending or out of offense, include “Harry Potter,” “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” “Catcher in the Rye,” “Lolita,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “1984,” “Animal Farm” and most ironically, Bradbury’s dystopian classic “Farenheit 451.”
I don’t think it’s possible to attain a complete education on American literature without reading Huck Finn, but if schools insist on banning it, I would recommend another piece of Mark Twain literature (of sorts) for school. It’s just a quote that simply reads, “censorship is telling a man he can’t have steak just because a baby can’t chew it.”
Speech codes, like Bellevue College’s bias incident policy hurt education. Education, after all, is more or less synonymous with exposure to different ideas and perceptions. Every time an individual attempts to limit punish people’s speech based on subjective rules, they are violating the student or teacher’s right to speak and all students own right to hear another view.
As students at BC, we are fortunate to have a vice president of diversity who understands the importance of First Amendment rights, and isn’t inquisitorial in her views on protecting students from potentially offensive speech. Her views don’t matter under the current rules though – all it takes is for one student to claim offense at a book, a comment or picture, and the ground has been laid for censorship. Again, who is to decide? Who would you allow to tell you what you cannot read, hear or see? As an adult and as a student, I’d prefer to make that decision myself.