If our free speech rights were represented by a boxer, he’d be holding on to the ropes to stay upright.

It’s not a knockout yet, but the punches are coming thick and fast:

In issuing a recent ruling about how the University of Montana dealt with sexual harassment charges, the Department of Justice has created a whole new legal standard that apparently will crack down on campus speech just because someone may not like it.

As Wendy Kaminer noted in the May issue of The Atlantic magazine, in a column headlined, “No Sex Talk Allowed,” “What’s the difference between an unwelcome request for a date and rape? Pursuant to the Obama administration’s definition of sexual harassment, this is not an easy question to answer.”

While federal court rulings on sexual harassment require that comments or actions have to be “objectively offensive,” the DOJ said its new standard would be based entirely on the subjective reaction of any hearer.

Kaminer quotes the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education on the speech the new standard prohibits: “Any expression related to sexual topics that offends any person. … Any sexually themed joke overheard by any person who finds that joke offensive for any reason. Any request for dates or flirtation that is not welcomed by a recipient …”

While there is much that happens on any campus that may offend people of any viewpoint, academia is so liberal in so many places that, Kaminer says, “I doubt federal officials want or expect it to be used against sex educators, advocates of reproductive choice, anti-porn feminists or gay rights advocates, if their speech of a sexual nature is ‘unwelcome’ by religious conservatives.”

But, you say, that would create a double standard based on ideology. To which most conservatives would reply, “That’s the point.”

Political scientist Michael Barone, in a June 22 column headlined, “Why does the left want to suppress free speech?”, says it seems odd to people of his generation that the political left “doesn’t much like the First Amendment.”

However, unlike the free-speech issues of the past — student armbands, nude dancing, flag burning — that were causes of the left, “now it seems that it’s mostly liberals who want to shut down (political) speech that offends them,” even though it the First Amendment was primarily intended to protect political expression.

Writing in Commentary magazine on June 2, Jonathan Tobin notes that the U.S. attorney for eastern Tennessee, Bill Killian, “believes that Internet postings that violate civil rights are subject to federal jurisdiction.”

While even civil libertarians agree that it should be unlawful to foment violence or deny others their rights, that’s not the kind of speech Killian is apparently referencing. Instead, a local newspaper reported, he thinks civil rights statutes should be used to criminalize criticism of Islam and “inflammatory statements” that offend Muslims.

Essentially, that means adopting the same standards as Islamic law.

As Tobin notes, “there is a vast difference between defending the civil rights of a minority and seeking to silence those who hold views that are offensive to that minority.”

That is, there is no constitutional right not to be offended. If there were, artists who displayed crucifixes in jars of urine would be jailed, instead of being the beneficiaries of federal grants.

In the context of a column I wrote two weeks ago on abuses of public school students over “zero tolerance” firearms policies, a West Virginia eighth-grader faces potential jail time for wearing a T-shirt with an NRA logo to school.

As the website Bizpacreview.com reported this week, instead of just sending him home, his school called police: “(Jared) Marcum was charged with obstructing an officer … and faces the possibility of a $500 fine and up to a year in jail. Ironically, the arresting officer claimed that Jared hindered his ability to do his job when he refused to stop talking. Apparently, speaking freely is overrated in West Virginia.”

Finally, former federal prosecutor Andrew C. McCarthy wrote on National Review Online on June 8 that Master Sgt. Nathan Sommers, a 25-year career soldier who is a member of the U.S. Army Band, has received nonjudicial punishment for reading conservative books by authors Mark Levin, Sean Hannity and David Limbaugh “while in uniform or within sight of anyone from the band.”

Sommers had been previously taken to task by his superiors for having conservative bumper stickers on his private vehicle, even though Army regulations permit such displays. The stickers created “unnecessary workplace tension,” Sommers says he was told.

Discipline is important for the military, but it’s hard to see how privately holding conservative views on politics and social issues violates it, even if other soldiers are offended by it.

After all, didn’t they all take an oath to protect our freedoms?

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a freelance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at:

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