Stifled Speech on Campus

Article excerpt

FREE speech is under attack on college campuses, and even its traditionally staunchest defenders have joined the assault.

Student journalists and free speech advocates are concerned about a proliferation of college speech codes so widespread that, according to Time magazine, "Nowhere is the First Amendment more imperiled than on college campuses." As is often the case with censorship, these codes have been adopted with the best intentions: Campus racism is on the rise and something has to be done about it. So token measures are taken which exacerbate racial tensions and ignore the First Amendment.

Speech codes drafted in response to this important issue are dividing the American Civil Liberties Union, which has always tended towards an "absolute" position on free speech. While the Wisconsin and Michigan ACLU affiliates have sued their respective state universities over the codes, the northern and southern California affiliates adopted a resolution in July favoring narrowly drawn policies which prohibit harassing speech.

John Powell, national legal director of the ACLU, asserts: "My concern is less with the strength of the First Amendment than with the wave of racial harassment that has swept the country. The campus is not under the threat of being silenced."

Defending their resolution, the California affiliates cite the legal need to balance the First Amendment against "conduct that interferes with the Fourteenth Amendment right of students to an equal education." They argue that the resolution only advocates a ban on speech which is clearly harassing and that "hostile, even offensive speech in classroom debates and public discourse is something students must endure or challenge with speech of their own."

Free speech proponents such as writer Nat Hentoff are not buying. Pointing out that cases brought under the codes will be heard by untrained college judicial panels, not civil libertarians or ACLU attorneys, Mr. Hentoff decries the inevitably vague nature of speech codes. "Most colleges whose `due process' hearings I've covered are unshakably fond of the British Star Chamber model of the 17th century," he remarks sarcastically. "Just the places to deal with these broad and vague restrictions on speech."

Rules which limit speech are only as good as those who enforce them. Eleanor Holmes Norton, President Carter's chair of the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, explained this bitter reality: "It is technically impossible to write an anti-speech code that cannot be twisted against speech nobody means to bar. It has been tried and tried and tried."

Indeed, speech codes have been defended by voices far less moderate than those of the ACLU's California affiliates. …