Censor’s playground

February 29, 2008

Why can’t universities debate the limits of acceptable speech without someone urging legal limits, too?

It happened again this week during protests over publication of an offensive column on Asians in the University of Colorado’s Campus Press. Student government leaders presented Boulder campus Chancellor Bud Peterson with five issues they’d like him to examine – one of which was as outrageous as the column itself. They want the commentary evaluated in light of federal anti-discrimination laws.

"Yes, there’s the editor, officer, crouching behind the desk! Cuff her!" With thinking like that in vogue, no wonder so many schools have attempted to skirt the Constitution in recent years by passing speech codes. Just last week, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the University of Utah’s Department of Housing and Residential Education backtracked, under pressure, from a policy that had barred the posting of any material "deemed to be racist, sexist, indecent, scandalous, illegal, inciting, advertise alcohol or illegal substances, or in any way oppressive in nature."

Don’t you just love the phrases "deemed to be" and "in any way oppressive in nature"?

Peterson’s no fool. He’ll bide his time and then politely inform the students that federal law does not, after all, prohibit ugly, offensive commentary. He may even cite that pesky old mandate known as the First Amendment.

The protesters did offer at least one idea that makes sense: Consider recommendations expected from the journalism school dean to restructure oversight of the Campus Press.

Not that there’s a great deal of oversight to restructure. As with most college student publications, the Campus Press operates under a model of post-publication review. According to a university spokesperson, student editors decide what goes online and the faculty adviser weighs in after the fact. And if that sounds like an odd way to teach real-world editing and publishing practices, that’s because to some extent it is.

In the real world of journalism, final decisions are usually made by people with extensive experience. In college journalism, experience is hardly allowed in the door.

The post-publication model works fine in a community that is willing to shrug off the stupid mistakes of undergraduate writers or confine punishment for such mistakes to those who are actually responsible. But the Boulder campus is not such a community. Too many of those offended demand an extra pound of flesh. Meanwhile, the risk of future missteps may be growing as students try to mimic bloggers whose work is saturated in irony, ridicule and personal attack.

There must be some middle ground between a system that blithely publishes a piece titled "If it’s war the Asians want . . . It’s war they’ll get" and one in which a panel of ideologues or fogeys snuff all character and life from students’ work in the name of respectability. At least let’s hope there is, because the ideologues seem to be lining up as volunteers for the censor’s job.