Applying a double standard on campus speech

December 17, 2006|By Richard L. Cravatts

BOSTON -- On the Johns Hopkins University campus, university administrators seem to be giving credence to an observation by Abigail Thernstrom, who categorized left-leaning, politically correct institutions of higher education as "an island of repression in a sea of freedom."

Instead of functioning as marketplaces of ideas - "to protect the university as a forum for the free expression of ideas," as described in the Hopkins student handbook - universities continue to punish what they categorize as "offensive" speech and behavior that do not conform to the acceptable, liberal views of politics, race or sexuality.

When posting invitations on Facebook.com, an online social networking site, for a "Halloween in the Hood" party to be hosted by his Sigma Chi fraternity, junior Justin Park included some racist comments, crude stereotyping, and such vivid descriptions as likening Baltimore to a "m - - ghetto" and "hiv [sic] pit."

The invitation and party immediately drew condemnation from the Black Student Union, members of the school's administration, Baltimore's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and local media. The party was not only "offensive," as critics of the party put it, but pointed to "institutionalized racism" at Hopkins.

Apparently Hopkins administrators found offense as well: On Nov. 20, Mr. Park was suspended from the university for one year and ordered to perform 300 hours of community service, read and write thoughtful reviews of 12 books, and participate in mandatory workshops on diversity and race relations. Among his offenses: violating the "university's anti-harassment policy," "conduct or a pattern of conduct that harasses a person or a group," and "intimidation."

There are troubling issues here, putting aside the basic question of the fairness of punishing a student with a Draconian, life-altering college suspension because he exhibited loutish behavior. He received his punishment not because he participated in actual illegal harassing or intimidating behavior, but because some individuals were offended by speech that was not even made directly to them.

Of course, students have a right to be offended by the speech of their fellow students, but they also have a constitutionally protected right to be offensive, provided their conduct is within the bounds of the law. And why is it the business of universities to mandate sensitivity training for students and to force them to write book reports on "instructional" texts that support a certain worldview? When did universities stop teaching students how to think and instead begin indoctrinating them on what to think?

In consistently ruling campus speech codes to be unconstitutional, courts have understood the real intent of cases such as the current one at Hopkins: not to suppress all speech and attitudes but merely those ideas with which the moral gatekeepers disagree - those ideas and political beliefs that are unfashionable.

There was another Halloween affair this year that created some understandable issues when student Saad Saadi came to the house party of University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann, and was photographed with her, dressed as an Arab suicide-bomber complete with a keffiyeh, a toy Kalashnikov rifle, and sticks of fake explosives strapped to his chest.

Once the photos were made public, Ms. Gutmann was quick to proclaim that the terrorist costume was "clearly offensive and I was offended by it," but Mr. Saadi was never suspended or otherwise punished for "harassing" or "intimidating" certain individuals. Why? Because it is perfectly acceptable on campuses for students and faculty to embrace anti-American, anti-Israel, and leftist sentiment and never be called on their behavior.

The Hopkins administration has previously demonstrated hypocrisy on issues of free speech. In May, hundreds copies of the conservative, student-run Carrollton Record were confiscated from campus dormitories by university officials who were unhappy with an article the paper had published that questioned why student funds were used for an April lecture by gay pornography director Chi Chi LaRue, an event sponsored by the Diverse Sexuality and Gender Alliance. In the curious world of campus "free speech," a lecture to students by a gay pornographer is not offensive, but reporting about it somehow is.

Administrators at Hopkins apparently feel that free speech is only good when it articulates politically correct, seemingly hate-free, views of protected "victim" or minority groups. But great legal minds, including such jurists as Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., have always been dedicated to the protection of unfettered speech, where the best ideas become clear through the utterance of weaker ones. For Holmes, the protection of free speech was of particular importance in instances where unpopular or hateful speech is deemed offensive and unworthy of being heard.

"If there is any principal of the Constitution," he observed, "that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principal of free thought - not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate."

Richard L. Cravatts is director of Boston University's Program in Book and Magazine Publishing at the Center for Professional Education. His e-mail is cravatts@bu.edu.

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