First, a disclosure: I know Maloney from a local campaign, and like the man. We used to be neighbors before he moved. That said, I do want to review and recommend IU.
There is a tendency to minimize political correctness on campus, or to defend it as merely a protection against forms of harassment. However, IU cites many instances of where campus policies, particularly speech codes, are used as by university administrations as instruments of harassment against political opinions they disagree with. Many students interviewed in film repeat the point that there is no diversity of opinion on campus—it will not be tolerated.
One of Maloney’s strongest case studies is a former student from Cal Poly. His thought crime consisted of posting a flyer for a College Republican meeting to feature a speaker advocating capitalism and entrepreneurialism for the African-American community in a campus building reserved for minority interest groups. Accused of harassment, and by implication racism, he was threatened with expulsion if he refused to undergo a Maoist regime of sensitivity training (transcript of his initial disciplinary hearing here).
The CR stuck to his guns and with the help a FIRE, an organization founded by political liberals to defend students’ rights to free expression, won in court. The entire attempted abuse of power cost California taxpayers forty-thousand dollars when the court awarded legal fees to the student. So what did the administration have to say in its defense? Nothing. They went to great lengths to avoid speaking on the record for Maloney’s camera, even threatening him with arrest.
So is it fair to “ambush” college administrators Michael Moore-style, as Maloney attempted? Certainly, at a taxpayer supported public school like Cal Poly, the administration has a special responsibility to represent the university to any reasonable person with a legitimate question about their policies. However, even private school administrators should be willing to publicly defend school policies and their enforcement, since such decisions can have lasting consequences. That nobody would do so on camera speaks volumes. It seems the administrations of Yale, Bucknell, Cal Poly, Foothill College, UC-SC and other schools featured in IU realized the academic sausage-making of enforcing orthodoxy of opinion, particularly through speech codes, would not appear attractive when exposed to sunlight.
IU is an effective example of guerilla filmmaking. It is not a perfect film. Frankly, the frequent uses of quick cuts (particularly early in the film) actually weaken Maloney’s case, allowing his inevitable critics to complain of heavy-handed editing. However, the cases he cites are honestly disturbing. He is right to try to hold administrators responsible, because their actions will have an impact on students’ lives for years to come. Despite the seriousness of his examples, Maloney brings his sense of humor to bear on the subject matter, resulting in an often entertaining film. In truth, I frequently review documentaries here, and IU holds up remarkably well in comparison to what I have screened in recent months.
These are important issues. Smart, decent kids are being demonized for not towing the official line. Although Maloney admits his film describes the problem more than proscribes answers, there corrective measures available. You can support FIRE’s work and you can be an active alumnus. If the administration has a sense that alumni will withhold financial support if student rights to free thought and expression are not respected, the message will start to get through. You can also check out IU. It will screen at many campuses in the coming weeks, including OU, OSU, and UC-Irvine. (It is also available on DVD, and you are encouraged to request it from Netflix.)