COLUMBIA, Mo. — Jewish students in the University of California system labeled terrorists for their support of Israel. Black high school students pelted by bananas on a Tennessee campus tour. A hostile student in Maryland challenging his professor to a fight after the teacher limited the use of cell phones and laptops during lectures.
In a society where anonymous Internet commenters freely lob insults, and politicians spew partisan barbs, the decline of basic civility isn't limited to academia. But the push for more polite discourse — often as an extension of more entrenched diversity efforts — is firmly taking root on campus.
From the University of Missouri to Penn State and Vanderbilt, colleges across the country are treating the erosion of common decency as a public health epidemic on par with measles outbreaks and sexually transmitted diseases.
"What we're trying to do is remind me people of what they already know, to get back in touch with things they probably learned growing up," said Noel English, who heads a new Missouri civility campaign called "Show Me Respect," a nod to the state's nickname. The Missouri campaign comes after two white students pleaded guilty in April 2010 to misdemeanor littering charges for dumping cotton balls outside the school's black culture center during Black History Month; the students were sentenced to 80 hours of community service, two years of probation and had their driver licenses suspended for two months. A 2009 survey of more than 3,500 students found that nearly one in seven reported incidents of harassment on campus, from racial slurs to hostile emails.
At a campus civility workshop earlier this week, Eric Waters, a junior from Mansfield, Texas, who is the football team's starting tight end, described how other students often label Mizzou football players as "mean" and "disrespectful" womanizers, sometimes to his face.
"It's not about the stereotypes people put on us," he said. "We try to carry ourselves like true gentlemen."
The University of Tennessee enacted its civility campaign in 2011. There had been a cotton ball incident at the Knoxville school's black cultural center after President Barack Obama's election and, in 2010, bananas were thrown at a group of more than 100 black high school students from Memphis during a campus visit
"We want to be a campus that's welcoming to all, and hostile to none," said Chancellor Jimmy Cheek, who now outlines the school's 10 "principles of civility and community" at freshman orientation. The shared values range from inclusivity and collegiality to respect and integrity.
In some cases, the campus civility campaigns are being challenged by First Amendment advocates who fear that such programs muzzle unpopular speech in the name of tolerance and diversity.
That was the complaint at North Carolina State University, which revised a residence hall policy that, among other stipulations, prohibited dorm dwellers from wearing T-shirts or hanging posters "disrespectful and hurtful to others" while also requiring students to "confront behavior or report to staff incidents of incivility and intolerance."
The new policy now includes a written caveat calling the civility effort a set of "voluntary expectations" while emphasizing that the school is "strongly committed to freedom of expression."
"Civility is an important value," said Robert Shibley, senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which protested the Raleigh university's civility policy. "But at the same time, it can't be made the paramount issue in a free society, because there has to be space for people who have intense feelings about things to express those feelings in a way that really communicates the urgency and the depths of feeling that lies behind their opinions."
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