Gentlemen and Scholars

March 19, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND — Providence, Rhode Island. In the end, expelling Douglas Hann may have been the easy part. It's proving much harder to exorcise him. The ghost of this Big, Bad Man on Campus still casts a malevolent aura over the Ivy League quadrangles of Brown University.

On Wednesday, Mr. Hann was the context and subtext for a Public Affairs Conference here on what has come to be called ''hate speech'' on campus. Does a student have a right to cast a racial epithet or a sexual slur, to wave a Confederate flag or wear a swastika? Does a university have the right to enforce a code of community behavior?

All the questions were in the conference air. What happens when the right of one person to say whatever he wants conflicts with the right of another to be free from harassment? What happens when free speech comes up against community values?

These lofty matters were not at the front of Mr. Hann's besotted mind last fall when he celebrated his 21st birthday -- the entry into mature manhood -- by getting sloshed and yelling expletives and epithets in the quad. His equal-opportunity tirade managed to encompass blacks, Jews and homosexuals: or, rather, ''niggers,'' '' . . . Jews'' and ''faggots.''

This was not Mr. Hann's first experience with boozy bigotry. A year earlier, his sentence for such misbehavior was to attend a race-relations class and counseling for possible alcohol abuse. The lessons, need we note, didn't take.

A two-time loser, Mr. Hann was permanently expelled last month out of Brown and into the media spotlight. If he had been dismissed merely on the grounds of being a drunken and disorderly lout, few but his fraternity brothers would have missed him.

But he was also cast asunder for breaking a code that prohibits ''inappropriate, abusive, threatening or demeaning actions based on race, religion, gender, handicap, ethnicity, national origin or sexual orientation.''

Vartan Gregorian, the elfin and engaging president of Brown University, emphasizes the word ''actions.'' He protested many times during the evening conference that his school had punished the student's behavior, not his speech.

This is an interesting distinction for sophists. But our pal Doug's action was screaming in the courtyard. His outrageous behavior was accomplished with his mouth. So the question remains whether this university, or about a hundred others, should have codes that punish students for what they say.

Frankly, I didn't find this as easy a call as some of my other free-speech panelists. There is a time when one person's freedom to say anything he wishes can inhibit another's freedom to participate in the same class or community, or to say anything at all. Imagine sharing a class with someone calling you ''faggot.'' The First Amendment can collide with the Fourteenth. Free speech can inhibit equality.

There are times when speech is as damaging as a punch in the nose. The notion that sticks and stones are more lethal than names doesn't sit well with what we know of psychology. The mind takes blows as painful as the body. ''Nigger'' hurts.

The cure isn't to decide which is more important, free speech or equality, but to find some balance. And balance depends on weighing the amount of harm done in each incident. The harm done by gagging the free exchange. The harm done by the specific insult, threat, abuse.

Because of the need for a case-by-case balancing act, codes don't work. They are either unnecessary as in the case of Doug the Drunken Lout. Or they are too uniform. They are either intimidating. Or useless. Indeed Mary Rouse, who administers such a code at the University of Wisconsin went to great lengths to tell the Brown gathering how rarely it's implemented.

When thinking about codes, it's important to consider the campus as well as the Constitution. What I have witnessed is not so much contentiousness but an uneasy peace -- and quiet.

Blame it on politically correct repression -- the whipping dog of the moment -- but there is little real conversation around issues of race and gender. There is mostly silence, occasionally broken by epithets hurled across the emptiness .

Confederate flags are hung at Harvard and T-shirts are printed with women's butts at Emory. Students who are unable to deal personally with their own classmates ask the university to write codes to fight their battles and make the campus Utopia.

Not even Utopia bars conflict. What is needed on campus is more speech not less. At Brown these days they are at least talking about talking. It's the legacy of a most unlikely and uncivil donor: Douglas Hann.

Doug, old man, don't drink to that.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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