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When Political Correctness Gets Unconstitional

on the beat

By Pete Shuler · July 22nd, 1999 · Statehouse
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In 1964, demonstrations on the University of California's Berkeley campus culminated in school administrators acknowledging students' right to free speech.

Similar demonstrations on campuses around the country led to the official recognition of student speech rights at other colleges as well. Known collectively as the Free Speech Movement, these demonstrations were driven by political philosophies that most would categorize as liberal.

In addition to demanding the right to express themselves, student activists typically opposed America's military campaign in Vietnam and supported racial and sexual equality.

Christine Link, executive director of the ACLU of Ohio, says campus speech restrictions erased by the Free Speech Movement have been replaced by speech codes, which enforce today's liberal ideology.

"About 15 years ago, speech codes began spreading across the country as part of programs designed to encourage diversity and racial sensitivity," Link says. "Liberals, in the name of political correctness, censor speech at least as much as conservatives."

Lawyer Harvey Silverglate and professor Alan Kors, authors of Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses, point out that recent university policies have prohibited, among other things, "inappropriately directed laughter" and "inconsiderate jokes."

And before a 1991 U.S. District Court ruling, the University of Wisconsin prohibited "demeaning remarks to an individual based on that person's ethnicity, such as name calling, racial slurs or jokes.

In declaring these rules unconstitutional, the court also noted that "at least 15 colleges and universities, including nine state institutions, have adopted or are considering restrictions on discriminatory hate speech."

In order for such rules to be deemed unconstitutional, however, affected students must challenge them through a judicial process that might take years.

Link says that many are unwilling to pursue this route.

"There have been several administrative decisions at Ohio State that we wanted to challenge on constitutional grounds, but the students chose not to," Link says. "It's easier to sign a little letter of apology and sit through sensitivity training than it is to take up the fight and risk suspension or expulsion."

Rep. William Schuck, R-Columbus, has introduced a bill intended to ensure that Ohio's public college students will enjoy freedom of expression without enduring lengthy court proceedings.

The bill would prohibit state universities, colleges and technical schools from adopting or enforcing rules that restrict students' expression more than society as a whole restricts it. These institutions would be permitted to regulate forms of expression not protected by the First Amendment, such as obscenity, defamation and speech that threatens public safety.

But, according to officials at several state universities, the proposed legislation will have little effect on their campuses.

"We don't expect the legislation to have any impact at Miami (University in Oxford)," says Holly Wissing, director of news and public relations. "University policy already recognizes the students' right of expression."

Chris Curran, assistant director of public relations at the University of Cincinnati (UC), also expects the bill to have a minimal impact.

"Our rules already guarantee what the legislation is proposing," Curran says.

Indeed, UC's rules closely mirror those of Schuck's bill.

"As members of society, students enjoy the same freedom of speech and assembly that other members of society enjoy," the charter of student freedoms reads.

And, although Ohio State University's (OSU) code of student conduct says little about student speech rights, Ruth Gerstner, director of news services at OSU, thinks that the legislation would change little at the state's largest university.

"We encourage civility and tolerance, but also fully support the First Amendment," Gerstner says.

Although the bill, which gained passage in the House and is awaiting consideration by the Senate Rules Committee, might not have an immediate or dramatic impact on some Ohio campuses, it would nevertheless provide legislative protection to the speech rights of more than 400,000 students who attend Ohio's public colleges and universities.

Schuck thinks that such speech is vital to the effective functioning of these institutions.

"Critical thinking and robust inquiry are the fundamental purposes of a university," Schuck says. "If you believe in the marketplace of ideas, you have to tolerate ideas you do not agree with and counteract them not by suppressing them, but by expressing your own ideas."

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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