NYU’s red light: Why we need offensive speech, too

March 6, 2007

It’s a rare soul that can traverse a university campus without the term “freedom of speech” ringing in his ears.

Still, intricate tomes of well-meaning restrictions on certain types of offensive speech and expression are found on many college campuses, making an ironic mockery of the most celebrated of the First Amendment’s five provisions. Pretty much anything that could offend anyone on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity and religion is fair game for censorship in the name of the melting pot.

Michigan State University, for example, pushes the nanny envelope with its political correctness, forcing offending students to undergo mandatory “ideological re-education” at their expense.

Following a repressive period of two red scares from the 1920s to the 1950s, speech protection on campuses saw unprecedented growth until the 1970s, including an important Supreme Court case that reversed the conviction of a young man who wore a “Fuck the Draft” T-shirt in protest of the Vietnam War.

The 1980s and 1990s brought promising First Amendment decisions from the Supreme Court, but something else was happening on college campuses. As the number of women and minority students grew, campus administrations were tempted to make them feel welcome, in a sense.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based civil liberties organization, has been instrumental in bringing unconstitutional regulation of speech to the public’s attention. Its website features a “Speech Code of the Month” and ranks most colleges with a simple traffic-light scale: Green means no serious threats to free speech, yellow means a policy could be interpreted as having a harmful effect on constitutionally protected speech, and red indicates that at least one existing policy “clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”

In a time when “nonpartisan” is often just a succinct way of saying “partisan, but good luck proving it,” the foundation (FIRE) is adamant about preserving the expression of political views all over the spectrum. When NYU unwisely canceled a debate over the cartoons depicting Muhammad last spring, FIRE called the action “shameful” and “surrendering to the heckler’s veto.”

NYU—not surprisingly, but for entirely different reasons—earned a big, ugly red light. The ranking is a rebuke of our anti-harassment policy, which prohibits any conduct that “creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work, academic or residential environment.” The basis for the harassment could be “race, gender, color, religion, age, national origin, ethnicity, disability, veteran or military status, sexual orientation, marital status, citizenship status or any other legally protected status.” At a November 2005 University Senate meeting, NYU added gender identity and expression to this policy.

We’re not alone: One recent study by FIRE estimates that 93 percent of speech codes would not stand normal First Amendment scrutiny in court.

When a group of protesters show up to express contempt for a group, an event or a person, what do they want exactly? In her op/ed last week, Rachel Fried suspected that the 300 protesters at the “Find the Illegal Immigrant” event intended to stifle the College Republicans’ freedom of speech.

Certainly the prevailing attitude among the protesters was that the College Republicans acted erroneously by holding the event. But if the event was canceled, Washington Place would have been empty. It would have been just another dreary day in the interim between winter and spring. I know my liberal peers, and no protest means no fun.

Ching Chong Song was another story. There are, I’d guess, no illegal immigrants at NYU, at least no vocal ones. But a few vocal Asian students railed against the band’s name, describing it as an offensive stereotype. They whined enough to have the band change its name during a performance at the Kimmel Center.

Judging by one band member’s caustic letter to Bryn Mawr students, I have my doubts that the two women who make up the band have halos over their heads. But the problem, as Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote, is that “one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.” No one person, or group for that matter, deserves to be the judge of what is hate and what isn’t. A potentially fruitful discussion of the Muhammad cartoons ought not to have been dismantled out of fear of offense.

Furthermore, if any and every ad hoc group was allowed to make the call, the ensuing slippery slope would soon have us listing types of permissible speech.

In an e-mail to the members of the NYU Bengali Students Association, Imtiaz Mussa, the group’s webmaster, directed each member to pick up the maximum allotted two tickets to the controversial cartoon discussion at Ticket Central and to rip them up. The same e-mail broadcasted a curious talking point: “Let’s remember, we have no problem with dialogue.”

Which, of course, is plain nonsense. Freedom of speech has no “buts” attached to it. “Free-ish speech” wouldn’t fly in the 18th century. I hear the founding fathers were anal about style.

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Schools: New York University