Conservative lawmaker, ACLU back ban on campus curbs on 'hate speech'

March 13, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Two longtime adversaries -- conservative Representative Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill., and the American Civil Liberties Union -- joined forces yesterday on a controversial new project: to curb colleges' censorship of students who say and write offensive and upsetting things.

Mr. Hyde, complaining that "the demands of political correctness are casting a pall of intolerance over American universities," introduced a bill to ban campus codes against "hate speech" at any college or university getting federal funds -- including private colleges.

The main practical impact of the bill, if passed, would be on the private colleges, since state colleges and universities already can be sued under the Constitution's free speech clause because they are part of government. That clause does not reach private institutions.

With ACLU leaders standing at his side at a news conference, the Illinois lawmaker denounced what he called a wave of "thought control" on an increasing number of campuses in response to a rising incidence of student verbal attacks on blacks, Jews, Asians, women, the disabled and gays.

He said such attacks were "deplorable" and commented that "I don't think people should make hate or racist comments." But, ZTC he said, the time had come to ensure free speech rights on all campuses when they get federal funds.

Nadine Strossen, ACLU president, said the Hyde bill would provide "a means to challenge efforts at enforced orthodoxy."

Aides to Mr. Hyde said a number of incidents of punishment of students for "hate speech" had been quieted by college officials, and thus there were only intermittent reports of specific acts of discipline. One of the more celebrated involved the recent expulsion of a Brown University student for an outburst of racial and religious slurs after he had been drinking -- an incident on which the facts are much in dispute.

Under the Hyde proposal, which the congressman's staff said he wants to pass this year, Congress would give college students a specific legal right to sue in federal court -- and have their colleges pay their attorneys' fees -- to overturn campus codes that interfere with the constitutional right of free speech.

The bill would protect only students, not faculty members, from college speech regulations. Mr. Hyde said that omission "may be a shortcoming of the bill".

In one response that appears to be sweeping the country, an estimated 70 percent of all colleges have adopted or are considering "speech codes" to restrict what students can say or write while on campus.

Mr. Hyde stressed that the only types of speech the law would protect for students would be those protected under the First Amendment by a long string of court cases. Thus, he said, it would not protect obscene or disruptive speech, or the use of "fighting words" that threatens a sudden outbreak of violence.

As soon as the Hyde-ACLU news conference ended, the bill they began promoting was denounced by a man in the audience: Richard F. Rosser, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, a group of 840 colleges and universities.

"This bill would set us back significantly in our attempts to deal with the problem of harassment" of minorities and other targets of campus slurs, Mr. Rosser told reporters.

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