e campuses around thecountry. In response, many universities have adopted policies that address bigotry byplacing restrictions on speech. The alternative to such restrictions, many administratorsargue, is to allow bigots to run rampant and to subject their targets to a loss of equaleducational opportunity. The power of a university to eliminate bias on campusultimately depends not on its ability to punish a racist speaker, but instead on the depthof its commitment to the principles of equality and education. Many universities, underpressure to respond to the concerns of those who are the objects of hate, have adoptedcodes or policies prohibiting speech that offends any group based on race, gender,ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.
That’s the wrong response, well-meaning or not. The First Amendment to theUnited States Constitution protects speech no matter how offensive its content. Speechcodes adopted by government financed state colleges and universities amount togovernment censorship, in violation of the Constitution. And the ACLU believes thatall campuses should adhere to First Amendment principles because academic freedomis a bedrock of education in a free society. No social institution is better suited to fightbigotry than the university. It can do so in its courses and perhaps most importantlythrough the way it conducts itself as a community.
We’re not talking about choosingbetween the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment. We’re talking aboutchoosing between regulating speech and regulating action. Murder is illegal. Talkingabout it isn’t.
Freedom of thought and expression is particularly important on thecollege campuses. The educational forum is where individuals come together toparticipate in a process of shared inquiry and where the success of that endeavordepends on an atmosphere of openness, intellectual honesty and tolerance for the ideasand opinions of others, even when hateful or offensive. Compromising free speechultimately threatens the rights of minorities. All too often, regulations on speech areused to silence the very people they were designed to protect in the first place.
AsEleanor Holmes Norton has said: “It is technically impossible to write an anti-speechcode that cannot be twisted against speech nobody means to bar. Free speech rightsare indivisible. Restricting the speech of one group or individual jeopardizeseveryone’s rights because the same laws or regulations used to silence bigots can beused to silence you. Conversely, laws that defend free speech for bigots can be used todefend the rights of civil rights workers, anti-war protesters, lesbian and gay activistsand others fighting for justice. The U. S.
Supreme Court did rule in 1942, in a case called Chaplinsky vs. NewHampshire, that intimidating speech directed at a specific individual in a face-to-faceconfrontation amounts to “fighting words,” and that the person engaging in suchspeech can be punished if “by their very utterance the words inflict injury or tend toincite an immediate breach of the peace. ” If a white student stops a black student oncampus and utters a racial slur. In that one-on-one confrontation, which could easilycome to blows, the offending student could be disciplined under the “fighting words”doctrine for racial harassment. Banning expressions of hate does not make them go away.
If we allow them tobe expressed and then each of us takes the individual responsibility to voice ourdisgust, opposition, annoyance and why, then we will educate many others to whycertain ideas are abhorrent. Discussion is the best silencer because it reeducates notjust the perpetuator of hate, but those who are observing it ————————————————————–