Where political correctness and free speech collide

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I came across an article about a restaurant chain in Colorado named Illegal Pete’s. Several Latino firebrands are demanding the name be changed and the word illegal be dropped, because they claim it has racial connotations.

The name of the restaurant refers to its founder, Pete Turner. Therefore, it has personal, not political connotations. Nonetheless, the word “illegal” is considered by this faction of protesters — who are against the accurate use of language — to be offensive and racially tainted. Where were these people schooled, Smith College? ... an institution that enters this politically correct farce shortly.

Because the word “illegal” now has racial inferences — at least, according to some — we are in danger of not being allowed to use the word as in, for example, “He made an illegal drug trade.” That might be interpreted as a person who is buying drugs from a minority group. Some of my ancestors emigrated from Scotland illegally. Perhaps I should not talk about this activity as it might offend some people of Scottish heritage.

You have likely come across news media releases that describe the increasing restrictions being placed on free speech on college campuses. The adage, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend your right to say it,” is under assault.

Of all places, educational institutions should value and treasure the right of free speech, even if some of it is offensive. Free speech is considerably more important than the right not to be insulted. At Smith College, a forum was held titled “Challenging the Ideological Echo Chamber: Free Speech, Civil Discourse, and the Liberal Arts.”

One of the panelists was Wendy Kaminer, a First Amendment supporter. She was addressing a serious subject in an enlightening manner.

[She criticized] the proliferation of campus speech codes that restrict supposedly offensive language. She urged the audience to defend the free exchange of ideas over parochial notions of “civility.” In response to a question about teaching materials that contain “hate speech,” she raised the example of Mark Twain’s ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,’ arguing that the students should take it as a whole. The student member of the panel, Jaime Estrada, resisted that notion, saying, “But it has the n-word, and some people are sensitive to that.”

Ms. Kaminer then made a major political “incorrectness” mistake. In this supposedly academic, problem-addressing environment, she used the word itself. For this pedagogical piece of enlightenment, she was accused of institutional racism.

Let’s pause for a moment to assess what is happening in some of America’s academic institutions. Her intention was to explain that the image of the word in people’s minds was the word itself, regardless of use or nonuse of the initial “n.” She used the word to make her point. That is one purpose of educational institutions: to debate and to learn from dissenting views.

The president of Smith College was criticized for not immediately assailing Ms. Kaminer’s use of the word. Consequently, the president wrote a letter to the Smith community with apologies to anyone who was “hurt” or made to feel “unsafe” by Ms. Kaminer’s comments. Unsafe? On a college campus? Inside a secure auditorium? Guards patrolling the area?

My bones chilled when I read about a respected academician at a public forum being accused of making someone feel hurt or unsafe. Borrowing a cliché, I silently muttered, “Student-up!” What are you in college for? To be mentally emasculated?

Intellectual weakness and spineless mentality are on display at Smith College and other so-called enlightened institutions, a shameful mockery of what our educational system should be doing with controversial subjects.

Those students are not going to come out of these sterile environments with robust mental frameworks to deal with the real world. They will likely graduate under the illusion of having privileged spirits and at the same time, clueless about life in a non-academic society.

It is getting worse, as described in the second piece to this article coming Friday.

• • •

Uyless Black of Hayden is the author of more than 40 books. His opinion and analysis pieces appear frequently in The Press.

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