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
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. …