Rights and Wrongs on Campus ; Recent Cases at Wesleyan and Harvard Highlight Campuses' Struggle to Preserve Students' Right to Speak Freely While Also Reining in Harassing Messages

Article excerpt

Crossing Wesleyan University's campus usually requires walking over colorful messages chalked on the ground. They can be as innocent as meeting announcements, but in a growing number of cases the language is meant to shock. It's not uncommon, for instance, to see lewd references to professors' sexual preferences scrawled across a path at the Middletown, Conn., campus.

At Harvard Law School, it was a virtual message rather than a chalked one that recently caused a stir. A white student used the word "Nig" in an online class discussion, one incident among several this year that African-American students say make them feel uncomfortable.

In response, officials and students at both schools are now debating ways to steer their communities away from forms of expression that offend or harass. In the process, they're butting up against the difficulties of regulating speech at institutions that pride themselves on fostering open debate.

Universities throughout the United States have long struggled with the right balance in protecting both students who bear unpopular messages and those who might take offense. In the past decade, conservatives often charged that a wave of political correctness left them speechless. But when it comes to regulating speech, students across the political spectrum can end up feeling like targets.

At Wesleyan, the gay and lesbian community was most vocal about feeling silenced when President Douglas Bennet announced a moratorium this fall on chalked messages.

Mr. Bennet says he had gotten used to seeing occasional chalkings filled with four-letter words. Campus tradition made any horizontal surface not attached to a building a potential billboard. But when chalkings began taking on a more threatening and obscene tone, Bennet decided to act.

"This is not acceptable in a workplace and not acceptable in an institution of higher learning," Bennet says.

The moratorium has sparked much debate about the proper bounds of speech on this famously liberal liberal-arts campus.

The chalking debate

Wesleyan junior Gina Zorzi says she's been chalking intentionally provocative messages such as "Can I spank you?" since she was a freshman. She says the chalkings are meant to raise awareness about issues not sufficiently addressed on campus and to "reclaim" it as a place that's safe to discuss sexuality.

"This is a space where you don't have to be ashamed," says Ms. Zorzi, who has not let the moratorium stop her from putting chalk to pavement.

So far, though, most students are abiding by the moratorium, despite the lack of a mechanism for enforcing it. Faculty are divided over the issue; some have signed a letter supporting the measure, but a majority of professors attending a recent faculty meeting voted against it.

Political science professor Vijay Pinch argues that, in addition to making the campus less attractive, chalking doesn't add much to dialogues.

"I'm puzzled by the position that somehow anonymous chalkings done in the middle of the night facilitate discourse and help students find a safe place," Mr. Pinch says.

For now, Bennet is seeking input about what kind of message- posting policy the school should adopt. The student assembly recently passed a resolution saying the "right to speech comes with implicit responsibilities to respect community standards."

Chalking has created controversy at other colleges, as well. The University of Kentucky, for instance, is about to implement a policy that limits it to a few designated areas on campus.

Other public universities have confronted problems this year while considering various ways of regulating where students can express themselves.

As government entities, public universities run into First Amendment restrictions against regulations based on the content of speech, says Russell Weaver, a law professor at the University of Louisville. …