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Speech Codes On College Campuses Essay, Research Paper

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for the redress of grievances.” This is the First amendment, possibly the most powerful words in American history because it guarantees American citizens their natural rights, under the supreme law of the land. Our First amendment gives us the freedom of religion, peaceful assembly, speech and press. With this simple amendment, “people can speak their innermost thoughts without fear or shame” (Hemmer 2). But, what if this glorious right causes other people fear or shame? The Constitution limits how public universities and colleges may punish students for what they say (Burns et. al. 75). As a liberal and a political science major, I believe fully in our constitutional rights. I believe “free speech is essential in the search for truth” (Hemmer 2). Although after reading Nat Hentoff’s essay “Speech Codes on the Campus and the Problems of Free Speech,” I have begun to wonder, like so many others, is “censorship is okay provided your motives are okay” (Hirschberg 283). Without speech codes on college campuses, minorities, women, and gays have been at the receiving end of constant harassment. Before making the judgement of whether or not there should not be speech codes on college campuses, I need to ask a couple questions.

Why is free speech so important on college campuses? Free speech is so important because universities thrive on a constant discourse of opposing ideas. I, like many other college students, have learned more from my fellow students than I have from any of my instructors. Our society and, in particular, higher education has flourished because free speech “produces an atmosphere where new ideas constantly challenge older ones” (Hemmer 2). The uniqueness of universities is that they provide an ocean of ideas, synchronized and conflicting. “Free speech is not simply the personal right of individuals to have their say; it is also the right of the rest of us to hear them,” and respond to them (Burns et al. 72). As a student, a citizen, and a woman, it is my right to share ideas. I want the right to become educated with the help of other people’s ideas, but I won’t use my right to free speech to intentionally harm anyone else. Unfortunately, not everyone else thinks this way. Some students take advantage of their First Amendment right and use it to harm others. These students are the reason why the Supreme Court and many university boards across the nation are debating speech codes.

Speech codes arose in the late 1980’s when most campuses around the country had already been diversified. Students found themselves sharing classes, dorms and activities with many people who differed from them in race, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic class and ethnicity. Unfortunately, this diversity also produced incidents where students and faculty expressed personal prejudices openly. As soon as cases of verbal harassment started making their way into the courts and onto newspaper pages, college administrators started to devise ways to put a stop to the controversy. A simple solution was speech codes, but are they Constitutional (Golding 5)?

In the end, the solution was not that simple. Since the main principle of the First Amendment applies directly to public institutions, it has been hard for many universities to pass speech codes and still remain constitutional (Golding 3). Since the only speech that is not protected by the Constitution is obscene speech and terrorist attacks, college administrators came up with three basic models of codes: the emotional distress theory, the nondiscrimination/harassment option and the “fighting words” approach. The University of Texas at Austin made racial harassment punishable by suspension or expulsion. They defined racial harassment as “extreme or outrageous acts or communications that are intended to harass, intimidate or humiliate a student on account of race, color or national origin that unreasonably cause them to suffer severe emotional stress” (Golding 2). The University of Massachusetts instated another code that is more commonly used. This code makes any form of verbal or physical harassment punishable. A group or individual violates the code if they “?Kdiscriminatorily alters the conditions for participation in the activities of the university, on the basis of race, color, and national or ethnic origin” (Golding 2). The “fighting words” approach has been used at many universities, but the first was the University of California. Fighting words are “?Kpersonally abusive epithets inherently likely to provoke a violent reaction.” Creating a “hostile or intimidating educational environment” also constitutes harassment (Golding 2). This approach, when used to protect a specific individual, is usually the best choice. It has been noted and used by the government to try and “?Kpunish certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of peace”(Burns 83). Even with these codes in place on many campuses around the nation and with the many supporters of speech codes, they have many more opponents.

The Supreme Court has consistently ruled against speech codes. In the United States v. Eichman, Justice Brennan of the Supreme Court said, “If there is a bedrock principal underlying the First Amendment, it is that the Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea offensive or disagreeable.”?x This case did not directly refer to free speech but it does lay down exactly how the Supreme Court views freedom of expression and the First Amendment. Even though the First Amendment clearly denies Congress the privilege to pass a law abridging freedom of speech, our rights are somewhat limited. As citizens, we have the right to beliefs, action and speech, but these rights are all regulated differently. The government does not have the power to punish a person for their beliefs, no matter what they are. Action on the other hand, is completely different. We have the right to take action, but that right stops when the action is ??landing a fist at another’s nose.’ Where to draw the regulatory line on both of these rights is clear. The line gets fuzzy when you exercise your right of speech. Speech stands somewhere “between belief and action”(Burns et al. 73). Unprotected speech is libel, obscenity, pornography, fighting words and seditious speech. Even with the controversy of what falls into this category and what does not, if a student is not individually singled out and harassed, they have no case. Usually, the victim is protected if their name is used in conjunction of aggressive, harmful or racially stimulating speech or press. For example, a group of women in a feminist art class distributed posters with the names of fifty men, chosen at random from a directory, under the heading, “Notice: These men are potential rapists”(Golding 6). If any of the men would have decided to take legal action against the women, they would have had a very good case since their names were given without any proof of what was being said was true. In Nina Wu’s case, the situation was much different. Wu, a student at the University of Connecticut was charged with violating the student behavior code. The behavior code prohibits “posting or advertising publicly offensive, indecent, or abusive matter concerning persons.” She posted a banner on her dorm room door listing “people who should be shot on sight” then listed “preppies, bimboes, men without chest hair, and homosexuals.” Wu was ordered by the university administration to move off of campus, but was allowed to return when a federal lawsuit was issued. It is hard to draw the line on this case, it is somewhere between speech and conduct, somewhere in the gray area. The lawsuit was dropped, and Nina Wu was allowed back onto campus (Dority). Unless the speech of a student is clearly categorized under nonprotected speech, it is legal. The Supreme Court recognizes this, and by the power of the Constitution, it has ruled against speech codes, again and again. But, the Supreme Court is not the only force against speech codes.

Even though speech codes have many advocates, including administration, politicians, students and parents, there is still a force to be reckoned with. At the national board debate of the American Civil Liberties Union, Gwen Thomas, a black administrator from Colorado, was the first speaker. She started by saying; ” I have always felt as a minority person we have to protect the rights of all because if we infringe on the rights of any persons, we’ll be next.” She went on to say, ” As for providing a non-intimidating educational environment, our young people have to learn to grow up on college campuses. We have to teach them how to deal with adversarial situations. They have to learn how to survive offensive speech that they find wounding or hurtful” (Hirschberg, 288). I couldn’t have said it any better myself.

Speech codes have become a diversion of the real problem. Colleges, and society, should be looking to solve the real social issue at the root of intolerance. The real social issue is a deep current of racism, sexism and homophobia that has run through our history, passed through families, taught in our schools and even preached in our churches for many years. The fact that we cannot do this overnight leaves us with the problem of free speech and the search for a quick fix. The truth is, there is no quick fix to this type of societal depression. Whatever that solution will be, it will no doubt begin with education. We will never truly succeed in educating the minds of the ignorant by protecting them. I have to agree with Gwen Thomas for two reasons. I agree because people learn from the situations on college campuses how to deal with their work, family and personal lives, and because college students are not children, they do not need protection from things that they will have to live with later on in life. Trying to protect young adults from the truth of the world will end up hurting them more. Instead of masking the ideas and beliefs of students with speech codes, we should let them see the guy wearing the sweatshirt that says, “Fuck Women.” Students need to see the sign that says “Homophobia Sucks” (Golding 6). Just because the sign is up or the words are said doesn’t mean that anyone has to read or hear them, but if they learn in college that these opinions are out there, they will learn how to deal with them later in life. If students learn to read these messages and not let them effect them, they will be more conscious to what their personal opinions are, and it will create a more tolerant society. With the laws that are in place against harassment, fighting words and non-protected speech, most of the speech problems can be dealt with, without a speech code.

The First Amendment makes speech codes unconstitutional. Even with all of the incidents that have triggered speech codes, that is the bottom line. It is every students right to freely speak their minds and share their ideas, this right would be taken away with speech codes. As American citizens, whether we are on a college campus or on a street corner, we need to exercise and protect our constitutional rights. Students should not be denied their right to freedom of expression just because it might offend someone. With the established fact that no one has the right to “abridge the freedom or speech,” all students should stand up and actively fight for their right to ??let freedom ring.’ Every student should know, the moment we stop exercising our Constitutional rights is the moment our freedom ends.

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