PHILADELPHIA — As Americans, we have the right to speak freely. But the manner in which we express ourselves can betray our cultural biases and let people know when we lack the skills to get along well with others.
So while we may have a right to say what we wish, do we have a right to refuse to learn more effective ways to interact or communicate in the school we attend or in the place we work? Where does "political correctness" end and cultural competency begin?
America's colleges and universities may soon begin that dialogue once again as a result of a series of lawsuits that the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) says it intends to file against public universities and colleges with restrictive speech codes.
On April 22, FIRE filed a federal lawsuit against Shippensburg University - a small Pennsylvania state school - alleging that the school's speech code violates students' rights by outlawing speech that is "inflammatory or demeaning" to others.
"The action at Shippensburg is the first part of a campaign to end the nightmare of campus censorship," says Alan Charles Kors, president of FIRE. "Such codes are a moral, educational, and legal scandal in American higher education."
The lawsuit asserts that the plaintiffs - undergraduates at the university - risk punishment up to expulsion for engaging in constitutionally protected free expression. In other words, if a white college student calls a student of color a name in the heat of an argument, he or she has the right to do so.
This strategy, unfortunately, uses a long-term injustice to eliminate a short-term mistake. While it aims to uphold the Constitution, it doesn't address the lack of intercultural skills on college campuses that eventually will wend their way into corporate America. In 1996, Texaco agreed to settle what's believed to be the largest racial-discrimination lawsuit in US history to the company and its stockholders at a cost of $176 million. The suit was settled after the media widely reported that Texaco executives had made derogatory remarks about black employees.
I, for one, am not willing to pay more money for gas so some executives can call their co-workers names.
FIRE makes several points worth considering. Policies that restrict speech tend to prompt people to play it safe and simply avoid joining in the dialogue that is the mission of higher education. These mandates simply teach students to recite what others want to hear in public, and to act upon their true beliefs in private.
For freedom to flourish, citizens must accept responsibility. If I want government to be responsive, I must vote. If I want public schools to be excellent, I must get involved with neighborhood schools. If I want to be able to speak freely, I must express my views in a manner that strengthens America, rather than in a way that inflicts injury and creates turmoil on my job or college campus.
Whenever I facilitate conversations between people of different ethnic and racial backgrounds, I set a few ground rules at the start of each session: Each person is entitled to express his or her opinions; each is obliged to listen; and each has the responsibility to communicate in a way that respects the cultures of others in the group. In short, each of us pledges to behave as if we are competent and able Americans.
In all honesty, policies that restrict student speech are a backhanded way of addressing the skill deficit that exists among a few college students. Before these policies are eliminated, training and performance evaluations must be put in place to determine if college graduates are equipped to hold the crucial conversations in life, in the classroom, in their relationships, and in the workplace.
Shippensburg University would not need a diversity policy addressing speech at all if it required students to demonstrate proficiency in intercultural and interpersonal skills to receive a college diploma. If a student's behavior or speech suggests a lack of necessary social or workplace skills, then hold him or her back, just as you would any student who has failed to master a core competency.
Under this approach, everybody wins. Corporate America gets workforce-ready college graduates who can implement global market strategies, college students get to freely express their opinions, and American consumers get to stop paying the costs passed on to them from corporate discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuits.
• Linda S. Wallace, a former journalist, is a cultural coaching and media consultant.