‘New York Times’ Editorial Board: Campus Free Speech Crucial for Education, Democracy

By on March 18, 2011

In an eloquent articulation of the importance of free expression on college campuses, The New York Times published an editorial today arguing that UCLA student Alexandra Wallace should not be disciplined for harassment as a result of her "Asians in the Library" video. The editorial argues that although Wallace’s speech was racist and should be criticized, the Times emphasizes that UCLA "would do a great disservice to itself and the First Amendment if it goes ahead and disciplines her for the content of her words."   

Quoting UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh’s recent blog entry on Wallace, the Times writes:

On his blog, Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment scholar at U.C.L.A., counseled why Ms. Wallace’s video is "clearly constitutionally protected," no matter how obnoxious. A purpose of the American university, he said, is to debate major decisions about social and other policies – to build consensus and the foundations of community. To assure worthwhile debate, it’s necessary to protect some worthless, even hurtful, opinion.

The video doesn’t justify the basis on which U.C.L.A. is considering punishing her: that her words amount to a form of harassment against a group of students. Her most offensive words – said while mimicking people speaking an Asian language – sound like an ethnic slur, but it would be hard to argue that they were threatening. If used against her, that rationale could also be used, wrongly, to punish what Prof. Volokh called "a vast range of other speech."

Noting the abysmal courtroom record of speech codes, the editorial continues by arguing that while truly harassing conduct should be punished, the use of harassment rationales to punish protected speech presents a dire threat to both higher education and our modern liberal democracy:

Universities have long wrestled with this issue, with many adopting hate-speech codes that punish speech victimizing minorities and women. Some of those codes have been struck down in court for being too vague. Many have been rewritten as antiharassment codes, with statements like this one in U.C.L.A.’s Principles of Community: "We do not tolerate acts of discrimination, harassment, profiling or other harm to individuals on the basis of expression of race, color, ethnicity" and other traits.

The codes are useful tools against real harassment, but they should not be used to abridge the principle of free speech. That would be a far greater threat to education and to a strong democracy.

It certainly would. As the Supreme Court observed in Sweezy v. New Hampshire, 354 U.S. 234, 250 (1957):

The essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities is almost self-evident. No one should underestimate the vital role in a democracy that is played by those who guide and train our youth. To impose any strait jacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of our Nation … Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die.

We are grateful for The New York Times‘ recognition of the crucial importance of free speech on campus.

Schools: University of California, Los Angeles Cases: University of California at Los Angeles: Disciplinary Investigation of Student’s Video