Outrageous Free Speech Violations at the University of Oklahoma
By David DemingIt’s getting hard to keep up with the instances in which the administration of the University of Oklahoma (OU) have violated First Amendment guarantees of free speech and freedom of conscience. In 2015, two members of the SAE fraternity were summarily expelled without due process after a video was published showing them chanting racial epithets. Although their conduct may have been reprehensible, legal scholars such as Eugene Volokhnoted, “racist speech is constitutionally protected.” Solely as a result of this incident, the Foundation for Equal Rights in Education (FIRE) in 2017 named OU as one of the ten worst colleges in the US for free speech. Greg Lukianoff, President of FIRE, singled out OU as the most intolerant of all institutions because its actions were taken as a signal by other universities that they could “toss freedom of speech and basic fairness out of the window.”
In 2018, the campus newspaper, the OU Daily, led a hysterical crusade against law professor Brian McCall for publishing conservative and Christian views in a book. Despite a complete lack of evidence of any bias or wrongdoing, the University of Oklahoma conducted a secret investigation of professor McCall that was predicated solely on the basis of his religious and social views. The investigation completely exonerated the professor. So what happened? Professor McCall was punished! He was pressured into resigning his position as associate dean for academic affairs. This culminated in a lawsuit that was settled on confidential terms in 2019.
Last November 16, FIRE disclosed that OU “Diversity Training,” a course of instruction mandatory for both students and faculty, requires participants “to affirm that their personal views align with those of the university, without providing avenues for expressing dissenting viewpoints.” Thus OU violated “freedom of conscience of its community members and, by compelling certain speech, violates the university’s obligations under the First Amendment.” When OU finally responded to FIRE the following May, they denied violating First Amendment rights and refused to forego the compulsory training. FIRE concluded that OU’s refusal suggested that “compelled speech is the point of the exercise.”
The preceding is far from a comprehensive list. And now, in a lawsuit filed last May 25, a former student at OU, Kylee McLaughlin, alleges that she was “bullied, harassed and discriminated against” and removed from the women’s volleyball team for having Christian and conservative viewpoints. First reported by the Oklahoman, within 24 hours the allegations made in this lawsuit were international news.
Of course, what we know at the present time are allegations. As I write, I’m not aware of any rebuttal by the University administration or by the volleyball coaches named in the lawsuit. Nevertheless, when Ms. McLaughlin alleges, for example, that she was forced to watch an indoctrination film titled “13th,” I find it difficult to believe that she’s fabricating this incident. Nor do I believe that her attorney, Stan Ward, a former legal counsel at OU, would take her case if he had not found her to be a credible person.
The Twitter feed for the head volleyball coach at OU, Lindsey Gray-Walton, is headed by a “retweet” from an organization named “volleyequality” that describes itself as “the volleyball community who demands equality among all persons...we reject racism, homophobia, and discrimination in any form.” The text is accompanied by an iconic, raised clenched fist, a classic symbol of oppression and terror. Of course, the volleyball coach is entitled to her personal view. She is not entitled, under the color of authority, to impose her personal political views on students under the pretext of coaching volleyball.
The allegations made in the 27 pages of McLaughlin’s lawsuit read like a story of forced internment and re-education in a communist slave labor camp. The film that McLaughlin allegedly was forced to watch, “13th,” has been described as “a morass of distortions, half-truths, calculated omissions, absurd hyperbole and outright falsehoods.”Quoting from the lawsuit, “the defendants, for several months, emphasized discussions about white privilege and social justice rather than coaching volleyball.” What do “white privilege” and “social justice” have to do with playing volleyball? Absolutely nothing. This is political correctness. “Political correctness” is much more than a person just believing their political viewpoint is correct, and another person’s incorrect. It’s a fanaticism that controls and informs all situations and human interactions. When a person is consumed by the thralls of political correctness, it supersedes every other human consideration. As Hillary Clinton expressed so succinctly, anyone who disagrees is “deplorable” and “irredeemable.” If they are unwilling to change, to surrender their freedom of conscience, they must be purged and excluded from human society.
McLaughlin was not allowed to hold the opinion that the song “Eyes of Texas” is not a racist song. Because she disagreed, she was denounced as a racist. McLaughlin was told to take down posts on social media, even though these did nothing more than express her personal opinions on political issues having nothing whatsoever to do with the OU Volleyball team. She was repeatedly bullied, called a “racist,” and a “homophobe.” Because she simply failed to agree with the political views of the coaches and other players, McLaughlin was told that her “conduct [was] detrimental to the team atmosphere,” and that “she did not fit the culture of the program.” The rationales invoked to exclude McLaughlin were similar to those used to justify Jim Crow laws and policies at the University of Oklahoma prior to 1950.
As the text of the lawsuit notes, McLaughlin’s rights to free speech and freedom of conscience were guaranteed on many levels. First, as a public University, OU is bound by the guarantees of the First Amendment. Second, the lawsuit alleges violation of statutory provisions of Oklahoma law (70 O.S. S. 2120), the campus “free speech” law passed in 2019. Thirdly, what happened was a violation of OU’s own policy which professes non-discrimination on the basis of political beliefs and guarantees “an environment conducive to the free, spirited, and safe exchange of ideas.”
How could such profound abuse occur in violation of both law and policy? I’ll tell you how: it’s facilitated by a degenerative process of isolation and exclusion. Although the University of Oklahoma prides itself on purported values of “diversity, equity and inclusion,” it’s not diverse politically or intellectually. Conservatives are not welcome on campus. Indeed, every effort is made to ostracize and exclude them, to the point of physical attacks (as occurred on February 2, 2017). When you exclude people with different viewpoints, you’re lost in an echo chamber. You never question your own beliefs, and come to look upon them as absolute truths. Anyone who disagrees is looked upon simply as a bad person, “deplorable and irredeemable.”
It’s disturbing to see how deep the ignorance runs. According to comments on social media such as Facebook, a number of people seem to think that it’s alright to throw a student off a sports team at a public university simply because she’s a conservative, or doesn’t agree with other team members on social and political issues. There also seems to be a considerable segment of the population that doesn’t believe OU as a public university is bound by the First Amendment. Several times I read the comment “the First Amendment doesn’t mean you don’t have to suffer the consequences of your speech.” This statement is a half-truth, the most insidious form of lying. While the First Amendment doesn’t mean other people can’t disapprove of you, it most certainly does protect you from consequences imposed by the government through the agency of a public university. If it were not so, the First Amendment would be meaningless.
Scarcely had news of the Volleyball lawsuit burst upon the world when OU found itself embroiled in yet another free speech controversy. According to a June 22 press release from FIRE, OU conducted a workshop for instructors that teaches them “how to eliminate disfavored but constitutionally protected expression from the classroom and guide assignments and discussion into preferred areas--all for unambiguously ideological and viewpoint-based reasons.” Teachers were instructed to “report” any student who disagrees, a chilling practice reminiscent of the East German secret police, the Stasi. FIRE concluded that OU’s workshop “teaches participants how to indoctrinate instead of how to instruct.”
In a June 23 response, OU maintained that “the University of Oklahoma unequivocally values free expression and the diversity of all viewpoints...the university will always protect the right to free speech and expression.” However FIRE noted that “we’ve heard this before, and it is meaningless without action...OU’s actions consistently demonstrate a disregard for free speech, as it time and time again and again skirts its First Amendment obligations.”
It seems that the University of Oklahoma is well on its way to acquiring an infamous reputation as the worst college in the entire country for free speech and academic freedom. Not only is the institution incapable of reforming itself, there is no indication that the administration even recognizes the existence of any problem. Nothing will change until the people of Oklahoma become involved and demand reform.
Deming is professor of Arts & Sciences at the University of Oklahoma.