Kenneth W. Golish
Detroit, Michigan, 1993
Does political correctness threaten to erode freedom of
speech guaranteed by the First Amendment? Has political
correctness already done so? If not, do we need to fear the
consequences of a later incursion of political correct thinking
into the fabric of government?
It is not hard to find examples of political correctness at
work. Most frequently we hear about the suppression of speech in
the college classroom during debates on such contentious issues
as affirmative action or abortion. Many conservative students
feel intimidated by their professors and other students. They
may be ridiculed, labelled racists or hounded for expressing
contrary views. So more often than not, they are quiet.
From another approach, there are examples of conservative
scholars facing controversy when their views draw criticism. In
London, Ontario, politicians and fellow academics called for the
firing of a professor over his theories of racial superiority
based on studies suggesting correlations between brain size and
intelligence. At Harvard, a professor decided not to teach a
course after some students complained about his racial
insensitivity. Although the university upheld his conduct in the
course, the professor felt so devastated by the process, he chose
not to face the same controversy again.
These two examples are part of the larger concern about
academic freedom. Should decisions on hiring and tenure be made
on the basis of political opinion? If it is illegal to exclude a
person from employment on account of race or religion, are a
candidate's political beliefs entitled to protection as well?
We have another example we heard about a few years ago at
NYU Law School. The moot court board selected a problem
involving a lesbian mother and lover in a custody fight with the
father. The board first withdrew the problem after some students
objected to it. The students complained that one side would have
to take a position against the rights of homosexuals. When the
board withdrew the problem, conservative students took exception.
Why was the board seeking to suppress debate on such a topic?
That the problem offended some students was not a reason for
denying others the opportunity to tackle it. One NYU professor
argued that withdrawing the problem was a declaration that some
legal questions were not open for a debate, a proposition at odds
with the basic principles of legal learning.
Most examples come from the educational community, but the
arena is not exclusive. Politicians, the police, the judiciary
must now conform their conduct to political correctness.
Politically correct people are for reform. Within the
vision of political correctness are affirmative action programs
for minorities and women, gay rights, and gender-neutral
language. To be correct is also to support revising educational
texts in history and the humanities. This revisionism
contemplates recognizing the achievements of woman and people of
The basis of political correctness is reform. Reform being
what it is, the politically correct are probably not in the
majority, although the phrase and examples so often used suggest
otherwise. PC people are of course not a small minority either,
but a strong voice. Thus, political correctness has motivated
government, business and educational organizations to reform the
way they treat people. Since political correctness may not be
the product of majority politics, it is perhaps this that is so
disagreeable to the politically right: the silent majority is not
heard for fear of the wrath of the minority.
If reform has irked the politically incorrect, the past few
years have seen a reaction to political correctness from the
right. Those at the forefront of the movement against
correctness charge that liberals are intolerant of the views of
those who do not follow the dogma of the left, that expression is
suppressed and that Orwell's 1984 is upon us. So it is that
while we were worried about the thought-police being Fascists
about to take away our liberties, it is the PC's from the left
who now threaten to do the same.
Interestingly, even liberals have expressed sympathy with
this campaign. This is a good measure of its success. If one
person had set out to orchestrate this onslaught against
liberalism, the achievement would have been considered brilliant.
Whether by accident or design, the attack on political
correctness has succeeded largely because the usual defenders of
free speech, the liberal left, have found some legitimacy in the
attack. They have however, given it more credit that it was due.
True, political correctness suppresses speech, but that is
what really happens in a democracy. That is what happens in a
society that recognizes the rights of its citizens to speak as
they wish. If the views of the politically correct Left did not
now prevail in the press, education, big business and politics,
it would be some other group. The private suppression of speech
is really what the First Amendment is all about. It is only when
government acts to suppress speech that our liberties are
Political correctness is the politics of inclusion. So much
of the history of the human race involves the suppression of the
rights of minorities and women. Having recognized that society
has excluded so many from the rights of full citizenship for so
long, the politically correct seek change in making all persons
equal. This reform works on more than one level.
On one level we hear about reforms to change the way we
teach and use language. It is now politically correct to
recognize that the natives of North America were not mere
savages, but had a highly developed culture. Columbus was more
likely a brute, so why should we commemorate the 500th
anniversary of what was questionable his discovery? It is not
only the authors and publishers of historical texts who must
change, but also all those who use language whether spoken or
written. We expect politicians, judges, the press to use gender-neutral language. For example, why use the word 'fireman' when
'firefighter' conveys the exact same meaning without excluding
the possibility that person described is a woman.
On this level, the campaign against political correctness
seeks to lesson the importance of language while arguing that it
is unfair to control normal patterns of speech. As for
historical revision, they argue that the current historical
perspective is valuable because it has survived and should not be
Political correctness also operates in moving government and
industry to enhance the rights of those formerly excluded from
full participation. Thus we have affirmative action programs and
human rights legislation. Those opposed to political correctness
are often those opposed to affirmative action. The correlation
is not merely accidental. The political right now finds
traditional rights abridged. With society seeking to enhance
the rights of those formerly denied them, it is done at the
expense of those who have never been denied such privileges. The
white male is now the victim. These of course are legitimate
concerns, but they depend on a debate that goes on now and will
continue to do so for a long time.
The problem is that the campaign against political
correctness has more than one aspect of hypocrisy. Harvard Law
Professor Randall Kennedy in a lecture in 1991 criticized the
campaign against political correctness as hypocritical. Those
who would oppose the politics of inclusion, the politics of
victimization of persons other than white males, now cast
themselves as victims of political correctness. Yet another
aspect is that those on the right by their very criticism are
doing what they are critical of; attacking their opponent's
politics of illegitimacy because of their opponent's intolerance.
Are there examples of political correctness that should
concern us in the context of the First Amendment? There are.
The proliferation of hate codes on university campuses is perhaps
Assuming that these codes should always be subject to First
Amendment analysis, considerations of vagueness and
overinclusiveness should apply. These are principles that have
been part of First Amendment jurisprudence. Last term, the
Supreme Court dealt with the issue in the strikingly similar
context of a municipal by-law. The Court struck down a law that
prohibited cross-burning for the sake of racial intimidation.
Most such prohibitions will fail under such jurisprudence. The
same doctrines will apply to laws attempting to deal with
pornography. That such laws may be of concern under the First
Amendment is not a basis for suggested all political correctness
is repressive. In fact, in these areas, many of the politically
correct are not on the side of such prohibitions.
So what of the other examples of political correctness?
Perhaps the best case against political correctness can be made
in the area of academic freedom. Here though, there is nothing
new and there is no reason why traditional First Amendment
analysis should not apply. Under that analysis, the speech of
public servants, teachers and others may be legitimately
constrained in the context of their work. For those in the
higher levels of the administration of government, the state may
decide what speech is appropriate and may make appointments
purely on the basis of politics. Recently in Washington, we saw
Clinton's political appointments enter the front door of the
administration while former Bush officials quietly packed their
things and left through the back. The outgoing administrators
did not grumble about the process. What could they say?
Politics may, in certain circumstances, be a basis for making
hiring decisions. It all depends. According to the Supreme
Court, a police dispatcher may not be fired for expressing her
approval of the Reagan assassination attempt, but a prosecutor
can be removed for being critical of her superior's policies.
suggest be done. The analysis thus depends on the nature of the
position. For that reason, protecting against political
discrimination should not be an entitlement in every instance.
Such an analysis may legitimately apply in the high school
setting as well as at the university level. To test this
proposition, we might simply ask whether conservatives would
favor the employment of left-wing radicals for high school
teaching positions or university professorships, notwithstanding
What about those students who feel their speech has been
suppressed by the political views of their teachers and their
fellows. It may be legitimate to criticize those who are
intolerant, those who would be so quick to label others as
racists for example, but what would the political right do?
Should the professor be obliged to be open to all views and
punish those in his class who label others as racists? In that
instance, what about the rights of the professor or the other
students to free speech? To ask the question is then to answer
it. What should we do? We do nothing. Free speech works. The
marketplace of ideas renders some opinions worthy, others not.
If the professor decides not to teach a course or the student
doesn't speak because he or she fears criticism, so be it. There
can hardly be anything new in all this or anything to fear.
Finally, what about the decision of the moot court board to
drop the case of the conflict over the rights of homosexual
parents? Well, were anyone's rights infringed? Did anyone have
a right to have the particular problem debated? Was this the
only problem that could have provided students exercise in
constructive lawyering? The answers must be no. In the end, it
was the board's independence that was at issue, and they
exercised their independence by responding as they did, by giving
students a choice.
I know the politically incorrect are concerned with manners.
Recently, I found it interesting to sit with two judges who
complained about having now to conform their comments in their
judge-making. They had to be politically sensitive to the views
of woman in sexual assault cases and be circumspect in their
language. They also had to be sensitive to minorities. One of
the judges is the same judge who I have always known to be a
stickler for court decorum. He once sent somebody home for
wearing shorts in court. Not being concerned about that
individuals rights, I have trouble understanding how he feels
Political correctness is about manners. We now have a revised code of behaviour. Manners have changed over the ages and it does from culture to culture. Political correctness is largely part of a new code of etiquette. Manners may be taught. That some or even most do not like this new code is unfortunate. We should however expect that our public servants, our politicians and judges not to act like boors, even if that were formerly acceptable. That means not making politically incorrect statements. It does not mean that the free speech protection is under attack. It will continue to thrive stronger than ever.
1. An interesting side issue is the application of the First Amendment when the college or university is state-run and when it is private. The right to freedom of speech is simply a guarantee that governments cannot pass laws that limit the rights of persons to speak. It is not about the rights of private entities to control the speech of those under its control. Whether a university or college is private or public, is it not logical to expect that the same principles of freedom of speech apply regardless?