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
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