Q: Do Prohibitions of Hate Speech Harm Public Discourse?

By Gottfried, Paul; Delgado, Richard | Insight on the News, June 24, 1996 | Go to article overview

Q: Do Prohibitions of Hate Speech Harm Public Discourse?


Gottfried, Paul, Delgado, Richard, Insight on the News


A frequently heard complaint among civil libertarians and old-fashioned scholars concerns the rise of speech codes on American campuses. As reported by Glenn Ricketts, research director of the National Association of Scholars, more than 300 colleges and universities have introduced speech rules, usually disguised as behavior codes to ban "offensive" ideas and language. This practice has not been turned equally against all users of insensitive speech. It does not keep feminists from insulting males or African-Americans from venting hatred on whites.

But speech-behavior codes have had an observable effect. At Yale University and the University of Michigan, faculty of my acquaintance take pains to express themselves in politically correct language. The failure to do so can be costly. It has led to the summary suspension of student-newspaper editors, such as Greg Pavlik at the University of Pennsylvania in 1992, and to removal of learned works from college bookstores, such as The Bell Curve, by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein. Politically incorrect utterances have driven some professors from their courses. In 1988, William Irons of Northwestern University was forced by the administration to abandon his upper-level course on evolution and sexuality after he had spoken about innate gender differences in a lecture and campus feminists protested.

Two years ago, the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights imposed its own behavioral guidelines on American universities and colleges by banning a "hostile environment" for racial minorities. This year new guidelines are expected to mandate a verbally comfortable learning environment for women. As with earlier guidelines, these directives will require educational institutions to take a "constructive notice" of all speech uttered on campus. The institutions therefore will be liable for all infractions against the guidelines, even those committed by visitors.

These administrative actions are not unprecedented in the Western world. In Europe and the British Commonwealth, political correctness has been pursued in a way that may foreshadow the way the United States will be pushed by sensitizing lobbies. Since the 1970s, almost all Western countries have introduced and applied laws against hate speech. These laws prescribe penalties that include fines and even imprisonment for those found guilty of defaming or disparaging ethnic, racial or (in some cases) religious groups. Some of these laws have been attached to more general antidiscrimination codes, as is the case in England, the Canadian province of Ontario and Australia; other laws--such as those in France, Holland, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Poland, Sweden, Italy and Belgium--are intended specifically to bar Holocaust revisionism. French legislators passed codes against group defamation in 1972 and 1990, expanding a 19th-century law prohibiting journalistic libel in order to criminalize defamatory speech against ethnic and racial groups and the practitioners of unconventional "lifestyles."

Many of the codes have been passed and applied with the conspicuous support of Jewish organizations. Although some of their most outspoken critics, such as the late French historian Annie Kriegel, also have been Jewish, in most Western countries prominent Jewish spokesmen have pushed for the suppression of unwelcome speech and offensive scholarship. The French chief rabbinate, the French B'nai B'rith, and all leading French Jewish newspapers enthusiastically backed these antidefamation laws and openly allied themselves in the process with the Communist Party. (Indeed, the chief sponsor of the anti-Holocaust-revisionist law of July 1990 is a Communist deputy in the National Assembly.) In Ontario, as journalist Barbara Kulaska points out, over 40 percent of the lawsuits brought against individual authors or against the distribution of particular books under

No: Such rules make campuses and workplaces user-friendly to all. …

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