Free-Speech Bedfellows

March 24, 1991

Strange bedfellows have teamed up in defense of the First Amendment, which is under attack by equally strange bedfellows. The conservative Rep. Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill., introduced a bill to ban campus codes against ''hate speech.'' Cheering him on was the liberal Nadine Strossen, head of the American Civil Liberties Union.

At issue are the ''sensitivity codes'' by which a number of American colleges and universities hope to teach their students basic kindergarten manners. Most of the codes ban racism, sexism and other intolerant ''isms.'' More ambitiously, Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, proscribes ''lookism'' (the construction of a standard for beauty/attractiveness'') and ''ableism'' (''oppression of the differently abled by the temporarily able''). The University of Connecticut sought to eliminate ''inappropriately directed laughter, inconsiderate jokes . . . and conspicuous exclusion [of others] from conversations.''

Critics of the codes fear that they may go beyond punishing abuse and insult to threaten the free discussion of controversial issues in the classroom. A University of Michigan student was charged with violating the campus code by saying in a sociology class that he thought homosexuality might be treatable by psychiatry. The student was acquitted, and large sections of the code were later dropped when a court found them unconstitutional.

Mr. Hyde, warning of a wave of "thought control," would extend the right to make such court challenges to students at private universities. His unlikely ally, Ms. Strossen, a professor at New York Law School, says: "We are never going to eliminate group hatred, oppression or bigotry by silencing its most crass expressions and forcing them to go underground."

But rank-and-file members of Ms. Strossen's ACLU have been among the drafters of some of the codes. They argue that free speech has never included the right to defame others. Another strange bedfellow, the conservative columnist William F. Buckley, defended the expulsion of a Brown University student for shouting abusive epithets. It is the right of any community to control its members, Mr. Buckley said.

We're with the First Amendment purists. Obscene or disruptive speech, or ''fighting words,'' already lack constitutional protection. The way to improve the level of civility on campus is not with further restrictions on expression. Indeed, the best way to deal with fools or bigots may be exactly what one code tried to ban -- pointed laughter and ''conspicuous exclusion'' of offenders.

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