Codes censor speech

September 1, 2005

Given the section you are reading, it should come as no surprise that I describe myself as a very opinionated person. But, as somewhat of a pessimist, my columns usually focus on what’s wrong with policy X or ideology Y, and my usual targets are conservative, right-wing issues. I tend to focus on criticizing the right-wing because of its current political prominence.

However, I have a confession to make: There are many liberal left-wing ideas I’m equally unimpressed with, but haven’t written about. For example, I disapprove of gay adoptions, believe immigration laws should be inflexible and feel popular feminists often miss their mark.

So, I find it ironic that at the national level, Republican congressmen have far more important things to do than silence some newbie college columnist – such as myself – while at the state, and more importantly on a campus level, the opposite is true: The iron fist is attached to the arm of the most liberal left.

I’m specifically referring to university speech codes, rules that exist to punish the inevitable school bigots and quash hate speech. However, hateful speech can be a subjective term. To most it usually means mocking a culture, using stereotypes or epithets, etc., but this is not always the case.

The term hate speech can and has been applied to a person who endorses the proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage or argues that illegal immigrants have no right to driver’s licenses. If enough people complained, a columnist could be put in the hot seat, or worse, expelled from his or her university.

I wish I were simply paranoid, but this has happened. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Harvard Law School adopted "Sexual Harassment Guidelines" to punish sexist speech after a controversial article promoting a gender-related view of the nature of law was published in the Harvard Law Review. Subsequently, these guidelines were extended to racist speech.

It wasn’t long before two professors were accused of "insensitivity" for simply discussing the issue. The Black Law Students Association called for one accused professor to be banned from teaching first year courses. As a compromise, one professor stopped teaching the course in which the alleged offense occurred. The other professor was forced to tape record all his lectures so students who were "offended by his presence" could listen to the tapes instead of attending classes, according to www.chronicle.com.

At the University of Connecticut, speech codes were enacted to ban "inappropriately directed laughter," in addition to stereotyping, according to The Associated Press. In response to similar university policies, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit educational foundation, has challenged such codes and policies in federal court.

San Diego State has no such codes listed on its Web site or on that of the SDSU Center for Student Rights and Responsibilities. However, I often find myself "staying on the safe side" by practicing self-censorship on perfectly valid, yet powder-keg issues. The cautious self-censorship and censorship in general that university speech codes force on its students are the very reasons why I’m speaking against them now.

One of the fundamental rights of Americans is freedom of speech and of the press, and universities are meant to promote freedom of thought. With speech codes hanging over professors, students and student journalists, these ideals are indelibly compromised and will remain so until people speak out against them. Many have done so before me – it’s my turn to rip the duct tape from my mouth.

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Schools: University of Connecticut San Diego State University Harvard University