"I think people aren’t nearly as cool as they pretend to be at naked parties, but whatever, I’m a pessimist."

-- Birk Oxholm, The Naked Truth

The Current: Summer 2006

The Trouble With Speech Codes

From The Editors

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the premiere watchdog of civil liberties on college campuses, Barnard is the current recipient of their (mocking) Speech Code of the Month award. Barnard is highlighted because of its posting policy that prohibits the famous seven words you can't say on television ("the following words cannot appear on any posted information at Barnard: shit, piss, cunt, fuck, motherfucker, cocksucker, and tits with another for good measure-—"suck"). This speech code is explicit—Columbia has no such institutionalized code, and therefore remains a "yellow light" rather than a "red light" on FIRE's rating system. Yet I fear that more subtle, insidious speech codes that suppress more than provactive words could be on the way.

The latest in Columbia's tradition of springtime protest, Stop Hate on Columbia's Campus (SHOCC) has taken up fighting "institutional racism, sexism, and homophobia." An ideological outgrowth of the 1996 student movement to establish a Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, SHOCC was formed more specifically in response to a slew of recent on-campus incidents including defacing public campus buildings and private dorm rooms with bigoted graffiti, and, more threatening, throwing a bottle while yelling homophobic slurs at a student passing by on the way to his dorm. These two incidents are clearly crimes. Vandalism and assault have absolutely no place at Columbia, particularly when they are motivated by prejudice.

But a "hate crime," according to SHOCC, has a definition far more expansive than literal criminal activity motivated by hatred. Consider SHOCC's description of what constitutes a hate crime from its April 4th press release:

Hate crimes include any and all forms of speech, writing, literature, or expression that stereotypes, marginalizes, denigrates, and isolates an individual or group based on an aspect of his or her identity. Hate crimes challenge an individual or group's sense of self, safety, and belonging within their community. Hate crimes on campus deny the safe space to which all members of a university are entitled. Hate crimes on campus make Columbia a dangerous place to be.

This definition of hate crime is dangerously broad, making a criminal out of just about everyone I know. Essentially, any form of expression that in any way challenges another's identity (save white males), is a hate crime.

Indeed, while at a first glance SHOCC's platform doesn't appear to be an issue of free expression as much as racism, the group is advocating definitions as well as policies that, if implemented, would institutionalize limitations on freedom of expression at Columbia.

Are we willing to implement such speech codes for the sake of tolerance at our school? Should we criminalize, if not legally, then culturally, activities like the affirmative action bake sales that deeply offend some? Should we disallow The Columbia Spectator from running potentially offensive editorials? Before anything, we must examine our priorities. Are we willing to tolerate the suppression of free speech and inquiry for the sake of creating a marginally more tolerant atmosphere? Is "tolerance" more important than free speech?

Across the country, universities are facing the same question, too often choosing the gag rule of sensitivity over free expression. At times, this suppression has been quite blatant. While Columbia has been focused on SHOCC, there hasn't been a peep about the freedom of speech controversy that has blazed at our neighbor in the village, New York University. In response to the now infamous cartoons of the prophet Mohammad published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and the subsequent riots throughout the Muslim world, NYU's Objectivist Club, a group dedicated to advancing Ayn Rand's philosophy, decided to organize a panel to discuss the cartoon controversy. Though student organizations on several other campuses had run similar events without much opposition, NYU's administration responded to the group's proposal quite differently. Fearing potential protest, NYU told the sponsors the day before the event that they were not allowed to display the cartoons because, as the New York Post reported in an April 2nd editorial, "the university's Muslim students found the display of the cartoons deeply offensive."

After much debate, NYU conceded the cartoons could be displayed only under the condition that the event be limited to NYU students. In the end, as the New York Post reported, the cartoons were not displayed. The organizers instead decided to make a powerful point about the university's stifling of expression by showing four blank easels.

NYU's stifling of its students fits right into what has become the norm on a national level. Indeed, even the vehemently (and deliciously) politically incorrect South Park, was censored for trying to satirize the cartoons. Nat Hentoff, a renowned First Amendment expert, reported in his April 18th column in USA Today, "Free Speech Cries Ring Hollow on College Campuses and Beyond," that similar to the NYU blank canvas approach, a blank screen appeared with the words "Comedy Central has refused to broadcast an image of Mohammed on their [sic] network." Comedy Central's tactic has been the standard rather than the exception on this issue. Fear of offending Muslims, or said positively, desire to be sensitive to Muslim sensibilities, has won out over free speech in this case. While this reality is troubling, media censorship is no new occurrence. I am far more concerned about the suppression of free speech going on in the very universities that pride themselves on being the last-standing strongholds of free inquiry and expression.

Outside of the conservative camp, which has unceasingly criticized the left for its cowardice in standing up for free speech on the cartoon controversy and a host of other politically incorrect issues, those towing the civil libertarian position have been disappointingly few and far between. FIRE is the one organization that stands out in its consistent and rigorous defense of free speech on campus. FIRE has been unparalleled in its defense of free speech issues—and unlike the ACLU, unique in its true civil libertarian position: it defends the right to free speech for students and professors on the right and the left.

In response to the NYU cartoon controversy, FIRE's president Greg Lukianoff urged NYU to stand up for free speech, arguing that "NYU's actions are inexcusable… The very purpose of this event is to discuss the cartoons that are at the center of a global controversy. To say that students cannot show them if they wish to engage anyone outside the NYU community is both chilling and absurd." But legally, because NYU is a private institution, it is not explicitly bound to uphold the constitutional rights of the First Amendment.

So what recourse do students in private universities have when their free speech is suppressed? FIRE points out that private universities have both moral and contractual obligation to uphold freedom of speech on campus. Because universities view themselves as "bastions of free thought and expression" and advertise themselves as such, they have a moral obligation to uphold their promise. Furthermore, as FIRE points out, "private colleges and universities are contractually bound to respect the promises they make to students. Many institutions promise a free marketplace of ideas but then deliver selective censorship once the first tuition check is cashed. They may not be bound by the First Amendment, but private institutions still have legal obligations to deliver what they promise." To break this promise legally might mean to commit fraud or breach of contract.

As NYU censored the Danish cartoons, Catholic university Notre Dame came close to shutting down events of a different sort. For the past months, the university was in heated debate over two events that we take for granted here at Columbia: a queer film festival and a production of The Vagina Monologues were at high risk of being banned by the university administration. In a January 23 address to the faculty, Notre Dame's president, Reverend John Jenkins, used the entirety of the speech to discuss the contentious play and film series. Focusing mostly on The Vagina Monologues, Jenkins contested that the content stands in direct contradiction with "Catholic values," because it contains "explicit and graphic" descriptions of vaginas and sex, and contains portrayals of (homosexual) sex that "stand apart from, and indeed in opposition to, the view that human sexuality finds its proper expression in the committed relationship of marriage between a man and a woman that is open to the gift of procreation."

In the past several years, Catholic institutions across the country have been up in arms over the play. More than a few have outright prohibited students from staging it. At Notre Dame, since Jenkins's January address, debate over the film festival and the play mushroomed, with student activists organizing under the banner United for Free Speech. Former Vagina Monologues organizer and United for Free Speech spokeswoman Kaity Redfield, was outspoken against Jenkins's desire to censor the play. "We believe it is critical for an institution of higher education, particularly a Catholic higher institution, to welcome diverse ideas and human experience," she said. "Freedom of speech must be upheld, especially on the freedom to speak about critical issues that affect campus life."

Under pressure from United for Free Speech and after hearing feedback from hundreds of students, professors, and alumni, Jenkins agreed to allow both events to continue, in an about-face move that infuriated some conservative Catholics. In an April 6th New York Times article "Notre Dame's President Allows 'Monologues' and Gay Films," Jenkins stated definitively, that he is "very determined that we not suppress speech on this campus…I am also determined that we never suppress or neglect the Gospel that inspired this university.'' As a private Catholic university that sees itself as obligated by Catholic values, Notre Dame has very different obligations to uphold freedom of speech than, say, the University of Michigan. As FIRE states clearly, "If a private university states clearly and publicly that it is devoted to a given orthodoxy, that institution has considerably more leeway in imposing its views on students." And yet, despite Notre Dame's legal right to shut down events that might offend a conservative Catholic sensibility, ethically, this near-suppression is a deeply troubling precedent.

At Catholic universities like Notre Dame, speech codes are considered for the sake of upholding values the university considers more important, or at least equally as important, as free speech. At liberal schools like Columbia, free speech competes with the value of diversity. Diversity is a slippery word that in this case means the creation and protection of an environment where a multiplicity of identities can exist and "feel safe." Speech codes are a way of enforcing this ideal by ensuring that various minority identities are protected from offense. The cost of this is that they place the protection of identity over the protection of free speech.

Perhaps unintentionally, SHOCC has offered us a clear answer. While I have no doubt that across the board SHOCCers believe in free speech, when it comes down to a choice between free expression and advancing diversity by protecting identity groups, they place the protection of identity over the protection of free expression and inquiry.

This is why they are willing to criminalize behavior and expression that is unquestionably protected by free speech, such as the affirmative action bake sale. Additionally, SHOCC has proposed a policy that would come close to institutionalizing speech codes on campus: mandatory anti-oppression training for all incoming first-year students. Second of their seven demands, the training would be "institutionalized, mandatory, full day training on issues of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, power and privilege for all incoming students, faculty, and public safety; and that the training focus on anti-oppression…as well as significant student representation and control in the planning and implementation of the trainings." Far more subtle than shutting down a provocative play or speaker, if this sort of mandatory program is adopted by the university, it would no doubt create a chilling atmosphere for free expression on campus.

SHOCC's planned workshops must be intended to raise more than awareness, for awareness largely exists. Of course there are exceptions—but for all intents and purposes, awareness of and sensitivity towards minorities on campus exists. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone on campus who thinks that the person who scrawled homophobic messages and obscene drawings on Norman Washington's white board isn't deeply bigoted.

Thus, SHOCC's intentions must be to educate in a more fundamental way. But further reinforcement of "tolerance" and "awareness" in more and more formal forums does not amount to more awareness, but to coercion. The way to combat bias on campus is not by forcing people to suppress their biases by broading the scope of what's taboo, convincing people to keep their mouths shut, it's by convincing people to drop them fundamentally. But hearts and minds aren't changed through coercion. If anything, coercion further entrenches those with the most homophobic, racist, and sexist attitudes within those who feel them most deeply.

Let's look at the Ruggles incident. Matthew Brown, CC '07 and Stephen Searles, SEAS '08 got drunk and cover the walls of a dorm with swastikas, and other equally repugnant graffiti. They didn't do this because they lacked awareness that anti-Semitism, homophobia, and racism are wrong. They knew full well that they had gone well beyond the pale, which is probably why they tried to paint over their graffiti, ostensibly post-inebriation. There is a reason why these sorts of prejudices come out in such overt, violent ways. Most of the time, students who harbor biases they brought with the from home aren't confronting these beliefs, but instead suppressing them,

Making school a better place—SHOCC's aim—is a genuinely noble goal that the great majority of students can unite behind. I, too, want to live in a community in which people do not hate others because they are gay, Jewish, black, or transgendered. But I am not interested in having bigots simply refrain from expressing their prejudice for four years out of fear of social ostracism. I am interested in stopping people from harboring those sentiments, in changing beliefs. I am convinced that the way to change people fundamentally is not through institutionalized, mandatory trainings, but through opening up the marketplace of ideas and, more importantly, giving people time.

—Bari Weiss

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