A discussion of the problems eminating from freedom of speech on college campuses.
Freedom of Speech Racism, sexism and homophobia is growing on college campuses around the country. In response, many universities have adopted policies that address bigotry by placing restrictions on speech. The alternative to such restrictions, many administrators argue, is to allow bigots to run rampant and to subject their targets to a loss of equal educational opportunity. The power of a university to eliminate bias on campus ultimately depends not on its ability to punish a racist speaker, but instead on the depth of its commitment to the principles of equality and education. Many universities, under pressure to respond to the concerns of those who are the objects of hate, have adopted codes or policies prohibiting speech that offends any group based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. That’s the wrong response, well-meaning or not. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects speech no matter how offensive its content. Speech codes adopted by government financed state colleges and universities amount to government censorship, in violation of the Constitution. And the ACLU believes that all campuses should adhere to First Amendment principles because academic freedom is a bedrock of education in a free society. No social institution is better suited to fight bigotry than the university. It can do so in its courses and perhaps most importantly through the way it conducts itself as a community. We’re not talking about choosing between the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment. We’re talking about choosing between regulating speech and regulating action. Murder is illegal. Talking about it isn’t. Freedom of thought and expression is particularly important on the college campuses. The educational forum is where individuals come together to participate in a process of shared inquiry and where the success of that endeavor depends on an atmosphere of openness, intellectual honesty and tolerance for the ideas and opinions of others, even when hateful or offensive. Compromising free speech ultimately threatens the rights of minorities. All too often, regulations on speech are used to silence the very people they were designed to protect in the first place. As Eleanor Holmes Norton has said: “It is technically impossible to write an anti-speech code that cannot be twisted against speech nobody means to bar. Free speech rights are indivisible. Restricting the speech of one group or individual jeopardizes everyone’s rights because the same laws or regulations used to silence bigots can be used to silence you. Conversely, laws that defend free speech for bigots can be used to defend the rights of civil rights workers, anti-war protesters, lesbian and gay activists and others fighting for justice. The U.S. Supreme Court did rule in 1942, in a case called Chaplinsky vs. New Hampshire, that intimidating speech directed at a specific individual in a face-to-face confrontation amounts to “fighting words,” and that the person engaging in such speech can be punished if “by their very utterance [the words] inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” If a white student stops a black student on campus and utters a racial slur. In that one-on-one confrontation, which could easily come to blows, the offending student could be disciplined under the “fighting words” doctrine for racial harassment. Banning expressions of hate does not make them go away. If we allow them to be expressed and then each of us takes the individual responsibility to voice our disgust, opposition, annoyance and why, then we will educate many others to why certain ideas are abhorrent. Discussion is the best silencer because it reeducates not just the perpetuator of hate, but those who are observing it