Age of the Politicially Correct

Paul Greenberg

May 06, 1991|By Paul Greenberg

A STUDENT at Brown University now has been expelled for yelling some not very creative epithets at fellow students. Not for being drunk and disorderly. Not for combining the epithets with equally unoriginal obscenities. But because he chose the wrong names to shout -- the kind that insult others' race, religion and sexual preference. The liquor seemed to bring out the young man's antipathy toward blacks, Jews and homosexuals; hence, he is no longer welcome at Brown.

It is hard to believe that a school like Brown, the West Point of political correctness, would have expelled this 21-year-old junior simply for acting like a drunken lout. The problem arose because he acted like a drunken lout with inappropriate prejudices -- and that is now an expelling offense at the more prestigious campuses around the country. If he had insulted right-wingers, accused George Bush of being a war criminal or burned an American flag, surely all could have been forgiven.

American universities grow increasingly lax about what students do on campus and increasingly strict about what they may say. It's the reverse of the old idea that, while conduct on a college campus should be strictly regulated, freedom of speech must remain unfettered.

Politics, like physics, seems to have its equal but opposite reactions. The new permissiveness toward actions has been matched by a crackdown on speech. The more with-it campuses, like Brown, seem to have adopted speech codes that stand no danger of being confused with the First Amendment, which is the only speech code this country needs. What a strange fad these new codes are for campuses that once prided themselves on defending academic freedom. The whole notion of a speech code is an affront to freedom of speech.

The president of Brown, Vartan Gregorian, has resorted to a little Newspeak to explain away this embarrassment. (It was he who proposed the school's speech code and who now has enforced it.) Brown hasn't expelled anybody "for the exercise of free speech," he says, "nor will it ever do so." Then he rolls out his own credentials as a great believer in free speech: "My commitment to free speech (is) well known. . . ." He seems unaware that only someone whose commitment to free speech is dubious would have to advertise it. And finally he claims that this student was expelled for behavior, not speech: "The rules do not proscribe words, epithets or slanders, they proscribe behavior." This student had to go because behavior that shows "flagrant disregard for the well-being of others is unreasonably disruptive of the university community." Ring Lardner would have known how to sum up prexy's routine: Shut up, he explained.

Not even a lawyer could have obscured this issue as clumsily. It would have cheered some of us if this wayward student had indeed been expelled for his drunken behavior. It would have meant that some sound old standards were making a comeback American campuses. Unfortunately, it's clear that it was not the student's conduct but his speech that made him persona non grata at Brown.

It was left to Art Spitzer of the American Civil Liberties Union, that much-maligned organization, to explore and explode this Gregorian cant. (The ACLU is never so valuable as when it is defending unpopular speech, even from drunken jerks.) In a letter that should be preserved and reprinted whenever the subject is freedom of speech on campus or off, Spitzer wrote President Gregorian:

"There is a very simple test for determining whether a person is being punished for his actions or his speech. You just ask whether he would have received the same punishment if he had spoken different words while engaging in the same conduct. Thus, would your student have been expelled if he had gotten drunk and stood in the same courtyard at the same hour of the night, shouting at the same decibel level, 'Black is Beautiful!' 'Gay is good!' or even 'Nuke Baghdad! Kill Saddam!'?"

"I am confident," Spitzer added, that "he would not have been expelled for such 'actions.' If that is correct, it follows that he was expelled for the unsavory content of his speech, and not for his actions. I have no doubt that you can understand this distinction."

Ah, but can the president of a leading university in this Age of the Politically Correct admit that he understands a point so clear and fair that it would require explanation only to an intellectual? In today's unreal atmosphere on many a campus, any such admission would require courage, which in the end is the only guarantee of freedom.

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