Wheeler: N.C. State graduate values civility, but not at the expense of liberty

Burgetta Eplin Wheeler

Scrolling through Facebook posts, listening to talking heads, cringing at anonymous online commenters can lead to pretty easily identifiable instances of disrespectful or unkind discourse.

But is asking for civility just another act of censorship?

Derek Spicer of Apex thinks so. And anything that dampens debate on a college campus in particular is just downright dangerous to the N.C. State graduate.

Spicer, 22, spent three years as a resident adviser at NCSU, graduating in May with a degree in political science. In fall 2011, the university instituted a civility statement requiring residents to “speak to each other in a civil manner” and prohibiting the display of items that might be “disrespectful” or “hurtful.”

Spicer objected to a policy he considered ridiculously broad and impossible to enforce, especially given that, as an RA, he was the law.

“What if someone puts an Obama poster on the door? Do they have to take it down because conservatives might be offended?” Spicer asked. “How about a Bible verse? Does he have to take it down because it might offend someone?”

Spicer turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit that fights for individual rights, due process and freedom of expression at U.S. colleges and universities.

A letter from FIRE persuaded the university to alter the statement this fall to include: “The University Housing Civility Statement is not intended to interfere in any way with an individual’s academic or personal freedoms. We hope that individuals will voluntarily endorse the expectations outlined below.”

Spicer, an intern at the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, is satisfied with the change. It’s not that he’s against civility, but he thinks people need to feel free to be passionate.

“Trying to shut down things because it might be ‘uncivil’ is ridiculous,” he said. “It hinders discussion. It hinders debate. If college is supposed to be the marketplace of ideas, that’s the opposite message.”

The best disinfectant

The youngest of five children of conservative parents, Spicer grew up watching the news and talking politics at the table. He credits Ron Paul with influencing his turn to libertarianism. At NCSU, he was president of the school’s Young Americans for Liberty chapter.

“I’ve always been about constitutional rights,” said Spicer, who described himself as a fairly reclusive geek in high school. “Free speech issues just appeal to me, particularly being on a college campus where conservative libertarian ideals are not encouraged, to use a nice term.”

The university instituted the civility policy after someone painted racially charged obscenities and derogatory comments directed at gays and President Obama inside the school’s Free Expression Tunnel.

“That would offend me just as a decent human being, but we shouldn’t use our own disgust or disapproval to punish others because of perceived incivility,” Spicer said. “The way to defeat hate speech is not with censorship, it’s with more free speech. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

On our college campuses, we should want our kids to see how the collective power of decent people, rather than a directive, can bring irrelevance to the uncivil and how the individual power of one motivated 22-year-old can bring change.

“I’m just one person standing up for what I believe and fighting for what I think is right and trying to uphold my own rights and the rights of other students,” Spicer said. “Free speech isn’t important just to me. It’s important to everyone. It’s something worth standing up for.

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