Mandated diversity training at the University of Oklahoma forces students and faculty members to say they agree with political viewpoints preferred by the school.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reported that while schools generally “require members of their community to participate in diversity training without implicating the First Amendment rights of students and faculty,” they don’t include questions designed to force students and faculty members to agree with the school’s position.
“Hearing the university’s views — whether or not students and faculty agree with them — doesn’t necessarily require anyone to agree with those views, and for a university to operate at all you need to be prepared to hear speech you disagree with. A university may also ask students and faculty questions designed to demonstrate their understanding of the institution’s policies,” FIRE’s Sabrina Conza wrote.
The University of Oklahoma’s diversity training, however, goes much further, “requiring students and faculty to answer questions in a manner that expresses agreement with the university’s viewpoints on thorny and difficult issues. Viewpoints with which students and faculty may not actually agree.”
Conza then explained how such a requirement runs afoul of the First Amendment:
At a public university, requiring students and faculty to express agreement with the university’s position, viewpoint, or values in this manner runs headlong into the First Amendment right against compelled speech — as the First Amendment protects not only the right to speak but also the right not to speak. Famously, in ruling that schoolchildren cannot be compelled to salute the American flag, the Supreme Court held in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943) that it’s unconstitutional for the government to require a person “to declare a belief [and . . . ] to utter what is not in his mind.” The Court, correctly, held that compelled speech “would strangle the free mind at its sources.”
On November 16, 2020, FIRE wrote a letter to OU asking the university “to either make its diversity training optional or allow participants to select the answer choices that most closely reflect their beliefs.” The university has yet to respond.
OU also took four months to respond to FIRE’s open records request relating to the training, saying the organization could only view the materials in person. With the help of OU graduate student and staff member Elizabeth Owen, the organization was able to view the materials. Owen had gone through the student and staff training already. The staff training required participants to answer questions with the university’s preferred answer:
In one of these hypothetical situations, Owen was required to communicate with a fictional colleague named Michael. It showed a video of Michael saying he was “tired of all this transgender stuff” and gave Owen options to select in response. When Owen selected the response that she felt was most similar to her feelings (“I agree. Political correctness can be so tiring”), she was told that her opinion was not the “best choice.”
As FIRE wrote, if Owen were allowed to continue the training despite choosing an answer with which the university disagreed, there would be no abridgment of rights, but the training forced Owen to select the university preferred answer in order to continue. In order to continue and ultimately complete the training, Owen had to select “You seem upset. What’s the matter?” as the correct answer.
“In doing so, the university, an agency of the state, compelled Owen (and who knows how many others) to express a viewpoint with which she did not agree,” FIRE wrote.
The organization noted that students appear to be able to select answers that fit their beliefs and still be able to complete the training, though it is unclear if students who select the “wrong” answers face other adverse actions by the university.