BOSTON — FREE SPEECH is under attack on college campuses, and even its traditionally strongest defenders have joined the assault.
Student journalists and free-speech advocates are concerned about a proliferation of college speech codes so widespread that, according to Time magazine, ''Nowhere is the First Amendment more imperiled than on college campuses.'' As is often the case with censorship, these codes have been adopted with the best intentions: Campus racism is on the rise and something has to be done about it. So token measures are taken which exacerbate racial tensions and ignore the First Amendment.
Speech codes drafted in response to this important issue are dividing the American Civil Liberties Union, which has always tended toward an ''absolute'' position on free speech. While the Wisconsin and Michigan ACLU affiliates have sued their respective state universities over the codes, the northern and southern California affiliates adopted a resolution in July favoring narrowly drawn policies which prohibit harassing speech.
John Powell, national legal director of the ACLU, asserts: ''My concern is less with the strength of the First Amendment than with the wave of racial harassment that has swept the country. The campus is not under the threat of being silenced.''
Defending their resolution, the California affiliates cite the legal need to balance the First Amendment against ''conduct that interferes with the Fourteenth Amendment right of students to an equal education.'' They argue that the resolution only advocates a ban on speech which is clearly harassing and that ''hostile, even offensive speech in classroom debates and public discourse is something students must endure or challenge with speech of their own.''
Free-speech proponents such as writer Nat Hentoff are not buying. Pointing out that cases brought under the codes will be heard by untrained college judicial panels, not civil libertarians or ACLU attorneys, Mr. Hentoff decries the inevitably vague nature of speech codes. ''Most colleges whose 'due process' hearings I've covered are unshakeably fond of the British Star Chamber model of the 17th century,'' he remarks sarcastically. ''Just the places to deal with these broad and vague restrictions on speech.''
Rules which limit speech are only as good as those who enforce them. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who chaired President Carter's federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, explained jTC this bitter reality: ''It is technically impossible to write an anti-speech code that cannot be twisted against speech nobody means to bar. It has been tried and tried and tried.''
Indeed, speech codes have been defended by voices far less moderate than those of the ACLU's California affiliates. At Stanford University, law professors provided the philosophical rationale for a new student conduct policy that one student sponsor candidly admitted ''is not entirely in line with the First Amendment.'' ABA Journal, the publication of the American Bar Association, quotes Stanford Law professor Mari Matsuda, who argues that traditional views of free speech act as a self-serving cover for continued domination by majority elites.
In Orwellian fashion, advocates of the code argue that speech limitations would actually increase free speech and ''vigorous debate.'' Discriminatory speech, they reason, is meant to silence the victim.
Such arguments are not only clearly opposed to First Amendment principles, they also threaten to undercut the achievement of equal rights. Civil-rights activists have always relied on speech as their principle weapon. In the long run, any compromise of principles of free speech works to the detriment of minorities.
In addition to infringing on free speech, these codes may actually fuel racism. As the recent incident with the music group 2 Live Crew dramatically demonstrates, attempts to censor offensive views makes martyrs out of the censored. Did the censoring of the album ''As Nasty as They Wanna Be'' silence the misogynist lyrics of 2 Live Crew? Definitely not. It showered the band in publicity, thereby propelling them to the top of the charts.
Alan Keyes, a former assistant secretary of state, points out that the codes themselves arise out of a racist and condescending reasoning. In a debate with the professor who wrote the code adopted by Stanford University this spring, Mr. Keyes argued against the ''patronizing, paternalistic assumptions'' upon which the code is founded. He expressed surprise that ''someone would actually think that I will actually sit in a chair and be told that white folks have the moral character to shrug off insults and I do not.''
Racism is a problem which must be addressed with more than misguided measures like limiting offensive speech. Not only are such measures open to abuse, they also drive racism underground where it thrives.
An academic environment characterized by an unfettered pursuit of truth and knowledge should be the ideal forum to expose and defeat the ignorance that fuels racism.
The ACLU's John Powell forcefully argues, ''The primary problem is that we haven't begun to seriously discuss racial issues.'' He is absolutely right. But the speech-restricting policies he seems to advocate will only have a chilling effect on the needed discussion.
Jonathan Karl is the former editor of the Vassar Spectator.