Speech Codes Are Still Dead

Article excerpt

SPEECH CODES ARE STILL DEAD

Speak No Evil: The Triumph of Hate Speech Regulation

Jon B. Gould. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005

Jon B. Gould subtitle's his book about "hate speech" and campus speech codes "The Triumph of Hate Speech Regulation." When I read the suhlitle, I wondered it I had missed something during the last decade. I had thought that campus speech codes were dead, and that I had played a significant part in bringing about their demise by successfully litigating constitutional challenges to the University of Michigan code in 1989 and the Central Michigan University code in 1995. The University of Michigan case was the first constitutional challenge to the campus speech codes that were proliferating in the late 1980s. The code violated the First Amendment because the underlying premises of a prohibition on "hate speech" are inconsistent with the fundamental First Amendment principles of content neutrality (the government cannot say that equality is a "good" idea and racism is a "bad" idea), the protection of offensive speech, and the heightened protection ol expression in the academic context.

After Judge Avern Cohn of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan held that the University of Michigan speech code was unconstitutional in Doe v. University of Michigan, a federal court in Wisconsin struck down a supposedly narrower speech code for the University of Wisconsin system in the 1991 UWM Post v. Board of Regents. In 1992. the United State's Supreme Court held in R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul that the principle of content neutrality applied to government regulation of speech that itself was not protected by the First Amendment, such as "fighting words," and so struck down a St. Paul ordinance that had been interpreted to prohibit only "racist fighting words." In light of that decision, I wrote in 1992 that "under the law of the First Amendment, virtually any campus ban on racist speech imposed by a public university will be found to be unconstitutional." This position was confirmed by the Sixth Circuit in 1995, when I litigated a successful First Amendment challenge to Central Michigan University's speech code.

At the outset of the book, Gould acknowledges the successful First Amendment challenges to the campus speech codes. He goes on to discuss comprehensively and accurately the cases themselves and the societal context in which they were litigated. But he maintains that, despite these successful legal challenges, there has heen an "afterlife" of hate speech regulation, He says that by 1997 almost half of American colleges and universities had hate speech policies on the books, and that the court decisions holding the codes unconstitutional "were ignored, evaded and resisted." He demonstrates this rise in hate speech policies both by a quantitative analysis and by case studies of representative institutions, noting that the pattern is the same at private institutions, which are not subject to constitutional constraints, and public institutions, which are.

Gould relates the rise in hate speech regulation to what he rails 'mass constitutionalism," a process by which some legal norms fail to achieve societal legitimacy and so are not followed in practice. As he puts it: "Since the courts rely on the public's sense of legitimacy to enforce their rulings, a judicial decision that generates broad-scale defiance is not going to be accepted as a true legal norm. The decision may remain on the books, hut until a critical mass of the citizenry accepts the decision as just, fair, or at least tolerable, it will not permeate into the prevailing legal culture." He contends that the strong support for hate speech regulation on the part of university officials and academic commentators has led to the continuation of speech codes on a number of campuses. …