Campus Speech Wars: Waving the Tacky Shirt

By Miniter, Richard | Insight on the News, January 24, 1994 | Go to article overview

Campus Speech Wars: Waving the Tacky Shirt

Miniter, Richard, Insight on the News

In 1991, Rep. Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican, sponsored legislation that would have made it easier for students at both public and private colleges to sue over First Amendment issues. The bill was intended to help students who felt their right to free speech had been stifled by "PC" crusaders -- liberal activists who have managed to make "political correctness" the most pressing issue on American campuses. But Hyde could find only 25 cosponsors and the bill languished. The "PC backlash" went nowhere.

Indeed, since the PC wars began in the mid-1980s with skirmishes on the canon -- should Plato or Sappho be required reading -- college administrators have become hypersensitive to the needs of women and minorities. Perhaps as a consequence, arguments over what should be taught in the classroom have given way to acrimonious debate on civility -- how to make students get along on campus.

Pressured by vocal groups espousing multiculturalism, both public and private universities have adopted speech codes directed at students and faculty Intended at first to curtail incidents of "hate speech" usually racial slurs, such codes have been extended to regulate all aspects of campus life -- students have been asked to remove Confederate flags from their dorm rooms and forbidden from talking with outside journalists without permission.

More importantly, while a handful of students have been disciplined for directing hateful remarks at minorities, others have been the victims of overzealous persecution, most notably University of Pennsylvania undergraduate Eden Jacobowitz, who called a group of black sorority sisters "water buffalo" when their loud revelry late at night disturbed his study Jacobowitz, who could have been expelled for falling into a common shouting match -- he said his choice of epithet had nothing to do with race -- received a reprieve when the women dropped their charges before disciplinary hearings were held, saying in a prepared statement that Jacobowitz and his faculty adviser "chose to circumvent the process and try this grievance among students in the national media, making it an issue of freedom of speech and political correctness, while blanketing the real issue: racial harassment."

But on the other side of the country, students outside the glare of the media are challenging university speech codes more methodically -- in the courts, employing a new California law that explicitly forbids high schools and universities, both public and private, from infringing upon students' rights to free speech.

Known as "the Leonard law" after its sponsor, Bill Leonard, a Republican state senator from Upland, Calif., it has been the fulcrum of free speech cases at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California State University at Northridge and other schools. The pro bono lawyer leading the cause, John Howard, has 14 such cases pending. With state legislatures across the country considering similar bills, Leonard, Howard and California students may be opening a new chapter in the history of political correctness.

Until 1993, when the Leonard law went into effect, First Amendment-waving students generally lost clashes with politically correct school administrators. Then came the "T-shirt Incident," as a pivotal case at the University of California, Riverside, came to be known. At first, the T-shirt Incident followed the standard PC scenario: a relatively small disagreement was followed by a series of administrative fiats invoking ever sterner penalties and, finally, futile campus appeals. That this particular case ended with a surprising plot twist makes it a bellwether, at least for California.

It all began in September 1993 during Rush Week, when students aspiring to join fraternities and sororities attend parties sponsored by the local chapters. The school's Phi Kappa Sigma fraternity was throwing "South of the Border Fiesta," which some brothers advertised by wearing specially printed T-shirts featuring caricatures of a sombreroed Mexican toting a bottle and a bare-chested Indian hefting a six-pack and a bottle.

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