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The Difference the First Amendment Makes

The New York Post reports today that Canadian author Mark Steyn is facing charges in Canada for the opinions expressed in his book America Alone:

After the Canadian general-interest magazine Maclean’s reprinted a chapter from the book, five Muslim law-school students, acting through the auspices of the Canadian Islamic Congress, demanded that the magazine be punished for spreading “hatred and contempt” for Muslims.

The plaintiffs allege that Maclean’s advocated, among other things, the notion that Islamic culture is incompatible with Canada’s liberalized, Western civilization. They insist such a notion is untrue and, in effect,want opinions like that banned from publication.

Two separate panels, the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal and the Canadian Human Rights Commission, have agreed to hear the case. These bodies are empowered to hear and rule on cases of purported “hate speech.”

The Post warns that Americans should not dismiss “this campaign against Steyn and Maclean’s as merely another Canadian eccentricity. Speech cops in America, too, are forever attempting similar efforts—most visibly, on college campuses.”

The Post is absolutely right about the suppression of speech on America’s college campuses—witness San Francisco State University’s attempt last year to punish its College Republicans for stepping on drawings of the Hamas and Hezbollah flags simply because that act of political expression offended other students on campus. But while it is important to recognize the similarities between what is happening in Canada and what is happening on college campuses, it is also important to recognize the fundamental difference: when American public universities punish students for political expression, they act outside the law, in stark violation of our Constitution. And if American students are willing to stand up for their rights—as the College Republicans at SFSU have been—universities that attempt such censorship will be held accountable for their actions in court.

We as Americans should be thankful for the First Amendment, which protects our right to express controversial opinions. Students on America’s college campuses—where censorship is indeed rampant, as documented by Spotlight on Speech Codes 2007, our recent report on speech codes at colleges nationwide—should publicly stand up for their rights and put that amendment to good use whenever their free speech is threatened.

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