Campus speech codes addressed

By October 14, 2004

In an effort by a group of UConn faculty, administrators and students to create the University of Connecticut Creed, a lecture on speech codes and freedom of speech on college campuses was held.

The lecture, held Wednesday at the Dodd Center, focused on the student value of respecting the dignity and rights of others. According to Associate Vice President for Students Affairs Sam Miller, the event was just one of many seminars and lectures the university plans to have that elucidate five value statements, which are the focus of a recent effort to create a basic code for students to follow. He said the collaboration will produce five statements that express basic student values.

The seminar consisted of an introduction by Miller and then a webcast of two prominent figures in the area of free speech. Gary Pavela, the director of judicial programs at the University of Maryland and David French, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a civil liberties advocacy group. Both spoke about the controversy surrounding establishing speech codes at public institutions throughout the country.

Both men discussed the current issues surrounding colleges nationwide on what constitutes a violation of the First Amendment. French reported that many schools were getting themselves into legal trouble because of their biased opinions on free speech.

Pavela referenced a Yale Report conducted in 1975 that said the banning or obstruction of speech can never be justified on the grounds that it is interpreted as irresponsible, offensive, unscholarly or untrue. According to Pavela, the report is still valid today.

French presented information similar to Pavela’s classification of violation of free speech. He showed a statement released by the Organization for Civil Rights that said harassment must include something beyond the expression of views, words or symbols that someone finds offensive.

French said these findings mean that as controversial or obnoxious as a person or group’s statements may be, they are well within their rights to express them.

Pavela said the best way to react to offensive speech on campus is to challenge the offenders to publicly defend themselves.

French said he agreed with Pavela.

"The solution to offensive speech is simply more speech," he said.

Anand Prakash, a May 2004 UConn graduate who majored in history and political science, said he believes UConn should not have a speech code. Instead, he agreed with the speakers that the best solution to a contentious opinion is to encourage discussion. "What they said about more speech being an antidote is a great idea," Prakash said.

He then referred to a commentary piece that appeared in The Daily Campus two years ago involving a student who questioned the African American Cultural Society’s Mr. and Ms. Black Universe Pageant.

"That was an example of a controversial opinion that was allowed because of free speech," Prakash said.

He said he was happy to see the piece in print, which he agreed with, because it showed the diversity of ideas on campus and sparked further debate.

After the webcast, Miller addressed the audience of students and faculty and gave information specific to UConn. In response to a survey conducted by French’s foundation that claimed 70 percent of campuses have policies that restrict protected speech or are so ambiguous that they can be used to do so, Miller said the university does not have a designated speech code. However, he said, according to French’s definition of speech codes as "any policy, under any name, that restricts or inhibits constitutional expression," there are some policies on mass e-mails, web site contents and outdoor amplifications that might fall under that label.

"UConn is a university that celebrates free speech and promotes more speech," he said. According to Miller, UConn may condemn policies they do not agree with but will protect their right to say it.

Schools: University of Connecticut