An essay assignment for a second-semester freshman composition course (ENG102) written on 5 March 1994 at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Campus Speech Codes: Civility or Tyranny?
by James M. Wallace
Last year at the University of Pennsylvania, a student named Eden Jacobowitz was in his room studying one night. His studies were interrupted by the shouting and stomping of a group of black sorority sisters. He and other students yelled out of their windows to get their peace and quiet back. He made a reference to "water buffalo"; many of the others used racial epithets. The sorority sisters took offense and called the campus police.
During the investigation by campus police, the sorority sisters could not identify any of the people who had yelled at them, but only Eden Jacobowitz admitted to having yelled out of his window. He naively assumed that he had done nothing wrong. He thought the sorority sisters were the ones who had done wrong. He acknowledged that he had referred to them as "water buffalo" and explained that the Yiddish word for water buffalo, when used as an insult, meant "a noisy, oafish person" much the same as the English word "cow."
The sorority sisters (who had caused the problem in the first place) filed a formal complaint with the university administration. The campus police presented the results of their investigation to the administration. Under university regulations, the administration charged Eden Jacobowitz with making racially insensitive remarks. Using his own admission acquired before he had been advised of his rights, the administration found him guilty even though it was unclear as to how the expression "water buffalo" had any racial connotation. Apparently, the fact that he was white and his "victims" were black was sufficient evidence of racist intent. He was required to attend "sensitivity training classes" but refused, still insisting that he had done nothing wrong. Presented with his willful disobedience, the administration scheduled a hearing to determine if they should expel him from the university.
At this point, the conservative press picked up the story partly due to the nomination of University of Pennsylvania president Sheldon Hackney to head the National Endowment for the Humanities. Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh gave the story extensive play on his radio show including the reading of a letter from Eden Jacobowitz detailing his troubles. The national press then took up the story. The increasing publicity and the negative reaction to it embarrassed the university administrators into dropping the matter and clearing Eden Jacobowitz's name.
During the past few years, university administrators across the nation have instituted rules and regulations forbidding the use of words and expressions that may be offensive or hurtful to various "minorities." The purpose of these rules and regulations is to create an educational environment free of the hostility that such words and expressions may engender. University administrators consider these "speech codes" necessary to make their institutions accessible to "minority" students. The problem with these "speech codes" is that while attempting to protect the equality rights of some students, they may be violating the expression rights of other students. This is especially troubling within the context of an institution of higher education where individual freedom and the pursuit of knowledge are supposed to be held paramount. Are "speech codes" a legitimate attempt to create civility, or are they a powerful elite's imposition of tyranny?
In response to increasing racial hostility, the University of Michigan adopted a code of racial etiquette and punishment for speech that violated it. After pressure from feminists and homosexuals to include "sexist language," the code prohibited and punished "any behavior, verbal or physical, that stigmatizes or victimizes an individual on the basis of race, national origin, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, creed, national origin, ancestry, age, marital status, handicap, or Vietnam-era status." In a suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of an anonymous instructor, the entire policy was struck down in federal court as unconstitutional. In his decision, U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn affirmed that "the Supreme Court has consistently held that states punishing speech or conduct solely on the grounds they are unseemly or offensive are unconstitutionally overbroad" (Woodward 41).
While courtesy and respect are highly desirable and are the hallmarks of civil individuals and civil society, it is impossible to force people to treat one another with courtesy and respect. Any attempt to do so will fail on both social and legal grounds. Individuals will resent the personal imposition and infringement of their rights, and the judiciary will enforce Constitutional guarantees of individual liberties.
Like Eden Jacobowitz, numerous students and professors in universities across the country have found themselves accused of violating "speech codes" for simply making comments that were perceived as "racist" or "sexist" by members of a "protected minority class." Even a casual review of these cases reveals a startling pattern. The perpetrator of this "crime" is usually a white male (sometimes with impeccable liberal credentials), and the "victims" are "persons of color" or "persons of gender." Either white males are hopeless racists and sexists, or the people perceiving them as such are.
Particularly telling is the fact that "hate speech" from a "protected minority" member is rarely, if ever, punished. One almost never hears any condemnation of the virulent anti-Semitism of some black students or the patently sexist attitude behind the radical feminist assertion that "all men are rapists." Apparently "victims" can't be victimizers.
Another troubling aspect of "speech codes" is that they assume that some college students need to have their feelings protected. "Speech codes" juvenilize young adults and are ultimately demeaning as a result. When we were all young children, we each learned that "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." The attitude that this common, little poem is intended to instill is all the protection that any of us will ever need from people who actually speak ill of us. The power of words to harm us exists only in our reactions to them. The place to stop "wounding speech" is in our own minds.
Even if speech is actually racist or sexist, such speech is Constitutionally protected. Nat Hentoff, a tireless defender of the freedom of expression, defends this position by quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes, the eminent Supreme Court justice: "If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought--not free only for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought we hate" ("Free Speech" 353). The right of free speech is held by all of us. Any attempt to limit that freedom for some, including the bigot who expresses prejudiced, wrong, and hateful opinions, risks limiting that freedom for all of us.
The most dangerous threat posed by "speech codes" is the subversion of the university's mission. In a speech in New York City on March 20, 1991, Yale University President Benno C. Schmidt, Jr. sounded the warning.
"Some of the finest universities in this country have adopted rules which empower groups of faculty and students with roving commissions to punish offensive speech." When this happens, he concluded, "a lethal and utterly open-ended censorship is loosed." Its greatest damage is not to those punished, but to "the vastly greater number of speakers who will steer clear of possible punishment," and the "chilling effects of vague powers to punish offensive speech" (Woodward 49).
Hentoff notes that, while "speech codes" and other manifestations of "political correctness" arise from the political Left, conservative students are not the ones being cowed. On the contrary, the rise of PC has stimulated conservative college students to form opposition groups and to create their own newspapers which are "usually quite lively and fired by a muckraking glee at exposing 'politically correct' follies on campus." The most intimidated students tend to be politically liberal or moderate. These students "no longer get involved in class discussions where their views would go against the grain of PC righteousness." These students may hold critical views or have unanswered questions on certain aspects of affirmative action, abortion, and other issues. They refrain from expressing their views or asking their questions for fear of being labeled "racist," "sexist," or some other PC slur ("'Speech Codes'" 52).
In the presence of the "chilling effects" of "speech codes," it is impossible for there to be the truly free exchange of ideas vitally necessary for education to occur. If we can no longer depend on our universities to continue to be traditional bastions of freedom, is there any hope for freedom anywhere in our culture?
Hentoff, Nat. "Free Speech on Campus." Crossfire: An Argument Rhetoric and Reader. Ed. Gary Goshgarian and Kathleen Krueger. New York, New York: HarperCollins College Publishers, 1994. 350-354.
---. "'Speech Codes' and Free Speech." Beyond PC Ed. Patricia Aufderheide. St. Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 1992. 50-58.
Woodward, C. Vann. "Freedom and the Universities." Beyond PC Ed. Patricia Aufderheide. St. Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 1992. 27-49.