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Speech Codes on College Campuses

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“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” (Emory Law School). Reading these words of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, one is led to believe that the constitutional protection for the freedom of speech is absolute. The First Amendment is explicit: even Congress, which has been vested with “All legislative Powers…” under the Constitution, has no authority to formulate laws for the purpose of restricting the people’s freedom of speech (Emory Law School). If it is guaranteed under the Constitution, therefore, one should assume that colleges and universities, by virtue of their being centers of higher learning, ought to be bastions of freedom of speech. This requisite becomes clear merely by examining the missions of these institutions of learning.

            Learning, especially higher learning, could only be achieved in an atmosphere where a free market of ideas exists. This refers to a place where the free expression and articulation of varied experiences, opinions, beliefs, and even ideologies are not only encouraged but valued. This is necessary because only the healthy debates which result from the clash of unrestricted arguments and counter-arguments every time new ideas are offered for review, criticism, and approval, could separate truth from fabrications, disinformation, or misinformation.  In this context, every statement of opinion, every proposition, every interpretation of events, no matter how far-fetched they might first appear to be, deserves to be heard by others and defended by its author, if only to give chance for knowledge to develop and the process of learning to prosper. This freedom of thought, expression, and of speech is at the very heart of the dynamics of universal growth and development, and the academe, especially the country’s colleges and universities, being the centers of higher learning, should be its leading advocates and practitioners. Put more succinctly, “Freedom of thought and expression is essential to any institution of higher learning. Universities and colleges exist not only to transmit existing knowledge. Equally, they interpret, explore, and expand that knowledge by testing the old and proposing the new” (American Association of University Professors).

Hence, any attempt to set down restrictions on this free market of ideas thwarts its growth and reduces its output of new knowledge by inhibiting the dynamic forces that should be working energetically.  In other words, restrictions tend to ruin the whole process.  This is the case for colleges and universities in the country and elsewhere.  These institutions of higher learning make up the basic components of the free market of ideas and as such, are intrinsic to the process of generating knowledge.  Therefore, if we really want the process to work, if we truly wish the forces to interact dynamically in the free market of ideas and generate knowledge, the judicious choice should be to leave these campuses alone and allow the freedom of speech to reign supreme. Establishing speech codes on campuses, for instance, does nothing but restrain freedom of speech, thereby preventing the introduction of new ideas and impeding progress. Speech codes defeat the purpose of the freedom of speech which is to “sift and winnow ideas” and arrive at the truth (American Association of University Professors).

            Speech codes started emerging in public colleges and universities between the 1980s and the early part of the 1990s. According to the proponents of the concept, the objective was to combat discrimination and reduce the growing incidents of harassment being directed at the members of minority groups. Some observers, however, suspected that the establishment of speech codes was only done by some colleges and universities because it appeared to be politically correct at the time (Hudson).

            Confirming the prevalence of discrimination in college campuses, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) agreed that hate speeches were indeed observed in many college campuses when it issued the following statement:

In recent years, a rise in verbal abuse and violence directed at people of color, lesbians, and gay men, and other historically persecuted groups has plagued the United States.  Among the settings of these expressions of intolerance are college and university campuses, where bias incidents have occurred sporadically since the mid-1980s.  Outrage, indignation and demands for change have greeted such incidents – understandably, given the lack of racial and social diversity among students, faculty and administrators on most campuses (ACLU).

In the face of such developments, organizations representing the minority students, aided and abetted by progressive groups and supported by many members of the academe, conducted a series of mass actions for the purpose of exerting undue pressure on the management of public colleges and universities. They advocated what they called the “critical race” theory which argued that minority groups have not been receiving adequate protection under the First Amendment. According to them, hate speeches were subjugating “minority voices and prevents them from exercising their own First Amendment rights.”

For this reason, they demanded that the laws governing the First Amendment be changed so that hate speeches are not afforded any freedom of speech protection under the First Amendment. They backed their argument with the claim that hate speeches fall under the category of fighting words which has no protection under the First Amendment because fighting words tend to provoke instant violent reaction. They cited the decision handed down in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire in 1942 where the court ruled that fighting words “are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to the truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality” (Hudson). In other words, the bone of their contention was that hate speeches, being fighting words, were not necessary for the pursuit of knowledge and should therefore be banned in colleges and universities or in any other centers of learning in the country.

            Their relentless campaign resulted to the adoption of varying versions of speech codes by more than 350 institutions of learning all over the country. The administrators of these colleges and universities described their speech codes as tools designed to reduce discrimination and were created specifically to put a stop to hate speeches and campus harassments directed at the members of minority groups. Advocates of these “speech codes” argued that there was urgent need to prohibit hateful language directed at members of the minority groups because such language robbed them of their rights under the First Amendment (Hudson).  Proponents further claimed that in many colleges and universities, hate speeches caused outrage and ill-feelings and gave rise to hostile environments which proved inimical to the academic growth of students not only from the minority but from the majority groups as well.  For this reason, supporters claimed that such codes were necessary in order to promote an atmosphere of harmony and respect, and allow the different racial, ethnic and religious groups to peacefully co-exist in the campuses dedicated to the pursuit of learning (American Association of University Professors).

Their arguments were, however, contradicted by opponents of speech codes who asserted that such codes violate the freedom of speech guaranteed under the constitution.  They contended that the right to free speech should be limited by the serious harm, actual or threatened, that speech could cause.  They further claimed that speech codes amount to censorship because students who hold opinions contradictory to those allowed under the codes are discouraged from airing them for fear of being penalized, thereby defeating the government’s objective of achieving tolerance of diversity in all aspects of life in the United States (Uelmen).

Some sectors were saddened by this development which sets the basic right of free speech accorded to every American against the right of the minorities to equal treatment under the laws of the land.  They consider it ironic that during the early times, when nobody was thinking about giving equal rights and opportunities to African-Americans or to the members of the other minority groups, the right to free speech was never an issue.  This was aptly pointed out in Doe v. University of Michigan in 1989 when Judge Avern Cohn was quoted as saying that:

It is an unfortunate fact of our constitutional system that the ideals of freedom and equality are often in conflict.  The difficult and sometimes painful task of our political and legal institutions is to mediate the appropriate balance between these two competing values (Hudson).

            Unfortunately for the proponents of speech codes, instead of creating harmony, speech codes appeared to have achieved just the opposite.  Many of these codes which were drawn up supposedly to safeguard the rights of minorities under the First Amendment were claimed by conservative quarters to be in contravention with the First Amendment itself, resulting to cases filed in court against colleges and universities adopting them.  It was in fact observed that the trend had been for colleges and universities to adopt speech codes which were described as anti-conservative in nature.  An article entitled “Free Inquiry? Not on Campus,” even claimed that the days were over when censorship used to be a rightist monopoly. It declared that the time had arrived for the left to take over control and they were doing it with enthusiasm, buoyed by the prevailing belief that it was the correct political line of the time. In fact, according to opponents of speech codes, “the new censors aren’t interested in debates or open forums.  They want to shut up dissenters” and impose their will on others. The message was clear – speech codes enabled the political left to wield control over the right-wingers (Leo).

This assertion appeared to have been validated by the events which began unfolding since the late 1900s. Acts of harassment which were ostensibly carried under the auspices of speech codes or codes of conduct have been observed in colleges and universities. For instance, Anthony Ceddia, President of Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, was once quoted as having said that since 1990 the university in Pennsylvania “has pledged a commitment to racial tolerance, cultural diversity and social justice, and since 2000, it has required students to take a course that meets a diversity requirement.”  What happened sometime in April 2003, however, contradicted his statement. One of the cases which concerned the issue of speech codes occurred in Shippensburg University.  The case was brought to the attention of the court by two conservative students who claimed that they were so intimidated by the university code of conduct that they were forced to keep their political beliefs to themselves.  At the California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo campus, meanwhile, another conservative student claimed that black students harassed him when he advertised a speech made by another conservative black author because they considered that the views of the said author was anti-black (Marklein).

When the school administrators established speech codes or codes of conduct in response to pressure from civil liberties groups, the situation gave rise to mob scenes in college and university campuses all over the country. Hecklers and troublemakers started disrupting campus activities in the name of speech codes.  Jim Gilchrist, the founder of the conservative Minuteman Project in the United States was victimized by a mob in Columbia University in October 2006.  He was supposed to discuss the issue of illegal immigration in a speech before a group of Republican students in the university. Unfortunately, he was prevented from completing his speech by a rowdy group of left-leaning students. These students interrupted him by first heckling and later punching and kicking other members of the audience. They then tried to rush the stage while shouting the words “He has no right to speak!”  Neutral observers later explained that it appeared that the leftist students believed that their viewpoint was the only legitimate viewpoint and that those who had opposing opinions had no right to be heard (Stillwell).

Reacting to the situation, Thor Halvorssen of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) was compelled to state that “Universities should welcome all perspectives, no matter where in the political spectrum [instead of seeking] to privilege one predominantly leftist point of view” (Marklein). His opinion was that the incident committed by leftist students of Columbia University should not go unpunished. On the other hand, the earlier pronouncement which was made by ACLU that speech codes was not the appropriate response to campus discrimination appeared to have been proven right by the Gilchrist incident. It was also correct when it issued the opinion that the First Amendment accorded protection to speech in all its forms as long as it does not cause anybody extreme harm and that opposing views deserved the same protection under the law. The leftist attack on Gilchrist over at Columbia University obviously violated his basic right to free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment.

The foregoing discussions were evidences of instances of censorship in college and university campuses perpetrated by the left which rudely victimized conservative students.  Neutral observers believe that similar situations should not be allowed to continue. They maintain that such an unhealthy atmosphere will effectively prevent the institutions of higher learning to perform their task of spreading and enhancing the acquisition of knowledge. If the persecution of the conservatives is allowed to continue in what appears to be an imbalance in the political persuasion on the part of the faculty members and officers of some colleges and universities, they claim that the process of learning as well as its result will become one-sided.

Therefore, according to them, knowledge acquisition would be incomplete, utterly deficient, and of limited use . What could make the situation more alarming, according to them, is when the conservative groups muster enough strength and decide to engage the leftist groups physically. Although the conservatives were already observed to be fighting back, the confrontation has been limited to court battles. What would happen, they say, when some Republicans also decide to heckle and hurl obscene remarks at leftist speakers much like what Gilchrist experienced? Would chaos not result? They do not even want to venture what would become of the educational system in the country if left-leaning school administrators allow leftist students free rein in their campuses and conservative-minded colleges and universities give complete discretion to Republican students in their sphere of influence.

Some researchers have observed that the trend in campus speech codes have generally been working against conservative students. In Georgia Tech, for instance, the speech code bans any comment found to denigrate some beliefs. For some, this would mean that any passionate or enthusiastic arguments against other people’s ideas and opinions would constitute a violation of the speech code. In Ohio State University at Mansfield, Scott Savage, a research librarian, was investigated for his recommendation that four books considered to be conservative be included in the reading list of college freshmen. The investigation was initiated by the complaint of two professors that the books contained “hate literature.”  In Massachusetts, a school official encouraged students to steal copies of the Dartmouth Review by referring to the paper as “litter and abandoned property.” In another case, Hunter Rawlings III, a former president of Cornell University, said in a commencement speech that students who were responsible for seizing and burning copies of the Cornell Review, considered to be a conservative paper, should be praised (Leo).

The above incidents clearly demonstrate the negative impact of speech codes on college campuses, in particular, and the pursuit of education, in general. It is high time to heed the counsel of those who have spent years dealing with the issue when they said that “On a campus that is free and open, no idea can be banned or forbidden. No viewpoint or message may be deemed so hateful or disturbing that it may not be expressed (American Association of University Professors). Therefore, the most prudent thing to do given the circumstances would be to leave colleges and universities alone and allow them to encourage the free flow of ideas and opinions for the sake of letting truth prevail. The only knowledge worth learning is that which is based on truth. Speech codes could never be the answer after proving to be a shackle that prevents truth from getting to the surface.      

Works Cited

American Association of University Professors.  “On Freedom of Expression and Campus

            Speech Codes.” Academe. July – August 1992.  02 May 2008


American Civil Liberties Union. “Hate Speech on Campus.”  31 December 1994. 02 May

            2008 <http://www.aclu.org/studentsrights/expression/12808pub19941231.html>

Emory Law School. “Constitution of the United States.” 2006. 02 May 2008


Hudson, David, Jr. L. “Hate Speech & Campus Speech Codes.”  First Amendment Center.

19 January 2005 02 May 2008.


Leo, John. “Free Inquiry?  Not on Campus.”  City Journal.  02 May 2008.


Marklein, Mary Beth. “On campus:  Free speech for you but not for me?”  USA Today.

            3 November 2003.  02 May 2008.


Stillwell, Cinnamon.  “Mob Rule on College Campuses.”  29 November 2006. 02 May 2008.            <http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/g/a/2006/11/29/cstillwell.DTL>

Uelmen, Gerald. “The Price of Free Speech: Campus Hate Speech Codes.”  Markkula Center

            For Applied Ethics.  1992.  02 May 2008..


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