Speech codes choke off discourse, satire

April 6, 2006

Higher-education institutions are no longer havens for free intellectual discussion and open debate. Since public universities have lost nearly every court battle over clearly identified speech codes, administrators have developed stealthier ways to regulate unwanted speech. These covert speech codes are hidden in university handbooks under seemingly harmless provisions such as e-mail guidelines, diversity statements and harassment policies. Even though these policies aren’t identified as “speech codes,” university administrators are still able to use them to repress unpopular opinions, censor parodies, hinder political speech and restrict academic freedom.

Some people may be surprised that there is no right to not be offended in the bill of rights. Even the proponents of the “living constitution” on the Supreme Court have yet to discover this “right” in the constitution.

Last week, administrators at New York University successfully prevented a student group from exercising its free-speech right to show the controversial Danish cartoons of Mohammed. Student leaders of the NYU Objectivist Club, an organization devoted to the philosophy of Ayn Rand, organized this event to show and discuss the controversy. An administrator reportedly gave the students the “choice” to either exclude 150 off-campus guests from attending the event or not display the pictures.

Free speech is also under attack at the godfather of America’s law schools, Harvard Law. Like many other law schools, including LSU, Harvard students produce a satirical show each year which they call “The Parody.” It satirizes teachers, students and the hot topics of the school year. A 1990s production of “The Parody” spurred the Harvard Law administration to draw up “sexual harassment guidelines” targeted at “seriously offensive” speech,which are still in effect today. One act of this production made light of a Harvard Law Review article that used numerous expletives and touted a gender-based view of the nature of law. After a law professor unsuccessfully filed a formal complaint against the parodists, the law school dean appointed a faculty committee to draft guidelines aimed at preventing future speech that would create a “hostile environment” for female students.

The parody has continued to draw fire. Students have attempted to quell controversy by having numerous people vet the script for objectionable material prior to the performance. Despite producers’ efforts to prevent a PC firestorm, this year’s production once again created drama once the performance ended.

Complaints centered around the show’s use of racial and gender stereotypes. One student complained of her portrayal as “ghetto.” Another student suggested she was going to leave Harvard Law because of the production. In response, organizers attempted to deflect criticism, stating that the show’s cast and crew was composed of diverse members, all of which had a say in the final product. In the end, the director offered an apology to all those who were offended, saying there was no malicious intent toward the subjects of the parody.

According to the law school’s newspaper, The Record, two ideas were repeatedly floated at the meeting: completely prohibiting the portrayal of actual students, perhaps even professors, and implementing a system whereby students could choose to be parodied or not. One student even proposed a litmus test to insure the parody was conducted with tolerance in mind. The test asks if the joke would still be funny if it were about someone of a different race, gender or socioeconomic group.

It is disturbing to think that one day we may have to depend on some of these thin-skinned students to protect our right to free speech. It is difficult to imagine a parody which offends no one yet is still funny.

Two recent events at LSU vividly show that free speech is even under attack in Baton Rouge: Collin Phillips’ battle with the administration over his role in leading on-campus protests and the law school chancellor removing of the student bar association president for distributing a racially insensitive email.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education currently gives LSU’s speech code a rating of red. According to the FIRE Web site, a red-light university has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech. The University’s harassment policies are singled out as a threat to speech on the FIRE rating Web site.

“LSU has given students reason to fear expressing their opinions or working toward goals they deem important,” Tara Sweeney said in an article she authored for FIRE in the wake of the Phillips controversy.

If not for groups like FIRE, we probably would never have learned of the aforementioned events. Thanks to them, the unconstitutional acts of university administrators are more likely to face the scrutiny of the media spotlight and the courts. These groups are our best hope to return free speech and open debate to our institutions of higher learning.

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Schools: Louisiana State University – Baton Rouge Cases: Mohammed Cartoon Controversy: FIRE Response to Intimidation and Newspaper Disputes