Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The Pros and Cons of College Speech Codes

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The Pros and Cons of College Speech Codes

Article excerpt

DO UNIVERSITY SPEECH codes that prohibit hate speech outweigh the benefits the codes may have?

A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a university administrator debated that question during a session called "Waging the War of Words" at the ninth annual convention of the Southeast Journalism Conference.

"Balkanize the campus and turn students into warring Serbs, Muslims and Croats," warned Claude Sitton, who won a Pulitzer Prize for covering the early days of the civil rights movement in the South for the New York Times and later was editor of the Raleigh New & Observer. Now semiretired, he teaches journalism at Emory University.

A university campus cannot be allowed to become "a naked public square ... in which the advantage goes to the loudest shouter, the biggest mob, the most persistent expression of hatred," countered Gary Hauk, a secretary to the president of Emory.

Lucy Dalglish, national chairwoman of the Society of Professional Journalists' Freedom of Information Committee, moderated the debate over the limit, to freedom of expression regarding the rising incidence of hate speech on college campuses.

"Administration bring in the speech cops to banish those bad thoughts by banishing the language used to express them," Sitton said, adding that free speech and civil rights advocates of the 1960s who now embrace political correctness are guilty of "hypocrisy.

"Now these same folks seem to think that neither free speech nor integration is a good idea," he said.

Existing, criminal laws against harassment university expulsion policies are sufficient to deal with hate crimes, Sitton argued.

"Speech codes, on the other hand, by their very presence, coerce and intimidate," he continued. "They do so to censor, to stifle, to gag anyone who might say anything considered offensive by some group identified as a special interest. What's more, they teach tomorrow's journalists the insidious lesson that there's nothing wrong with a little censorship."

Free speech, he said, "is not a reward to be doled out to students and faculty whose ideas and rhetoric please presidents and deans. Free speech belongs to us all'"

Hauk defended Emory's conduct code, arguing that "on theoretical grounds and on empirical grounds, the harm done by such codes cannot be shown to outweigh the real or potential harm from the kind of harassment that they're designed to reduce.

"If the university stands for anything, it stands for the ideal of free inquiry and expression, freedom to pursue the mind's curiosity down whatever avenues of scholarly research [that] present themselves, and freedom to talk about that research in public, Hauk conceded. …

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