Stern: Misguided Speech Policy Undermines Expression
Published: Monday, August 27, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, August 28, 2012 00:08
When Ann Coulter was invited to speak at Georgetown last year, an immediate outcry arose. “She’s too extreme,” some students said, “too offensive for Georgetown.” A few even suggested that the Lecture Fund apply the university’s speech and expression policy to its speakers, rejecting anyone likely to break the code.
I have a better idea: As we begin a new academic year, let’s abandon the policy altogether.
At first glance, the policy may seem benign. Its preamble proclaims that “a university is many things, but central to its being is discourse, discussion, debate: the untrammeled expression of ideas and information.”
Then, suddenly, the policy does not just trammel expression but quashes it completely: “Expression that is indecent or is grossly obscene or grossly offensive on matters such as race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation is inappropriate in a university community, and the university will act as it deems appropriate to educate students violating this principle.”
Consider, first, the policy’s punishment. I can only assume, absent any further explication, that the university includes expulsion or sanctions in “act[ing] as it deems appropriate.” Nor are we given any hint as to what this “education” looks like, except that its ultimate goal must be to prevent students from expressing themselves in this “grossly offensive” manner again.
But also consider the utterly standardless terms “indecent,” “grossly obscene” and “grossly offensive.” Bereft of any qualifications or examples, “indecent” expression could encompass anything from the reading of a Philip Roth novel to a discussion of “Last Tango in Paris,” works once banned in several countries for their alleged indecency. The myriad other works of art once censored as “indecent” suddenly come to mind — “Leaves of Grass,” “Ulysses” — and the use of this term makes it seem that the university could restrict discussion of, or readings from, any of these selections. Indecency, indeed.
Equally startling and ambiguous is the university’s proscription against “expression that is ... grossly offensive” to minority groups. This interdict is distinct from other, wholly sensible rules forbidding direct harassment of students based on their minority identities. Rather, this clause of the policy is a deliberate attempt to regulate pure speech, as opposed to conduct.
Experience and the Constitution tell us this is a bad idea.
If the university does want to censor classroom discussions — or private discussions held on campus; the policy makes no distinction — it undoubtedly may do so. Such are the perks, or perhaps risks, of being a private university. But if Georgetown has this aim in mind, it should not hide under the veil of ostensible respect for free speech principles.
According to the speech and expression policy, two key aspects of academic life are “the willingness to address any question whatever” and “the habit of self-critical awareness of one’s own biases and presupposition.” Are racism, sexism and homophobia not among those questions to be addressed? Can self-critical awareness not extend to one’s own bigotry? If one is prevented from expressing his own views during an honest class discussion — objectionable though they may be — how can he learn that his ideas are repugnant and be encouraged to develop better ones?
By the letter of the current policy, this prejudiced student will be encouraged to keep his bigoted sentiments to himself, lest he expose them in a public forum and risk sanction. He will not enter the marketplace of ideas; he will simply have a monopoly on his own hatred.
Again, perhaps this is the environment Georgetown wishes to foster. But the university should acknowledge that virtually identical speech codes have been struck down at public universities for flagrant violation of the First Amendment. Georgetown attempts to evade constitutional principles by arguing that the entirety of one’s college experience qualifies as a “time, place and manner restriction,” but this is absurd. Not only could such an exception not possibly cover a student’s four years on campus, but it also cannot target the specific content of the speech, as Georgetown’s policy does.
Yet the Constitution does not oversee Georgetown’s speech policies; it is instead the responsibility of the student body to protect free speech. Thus far, our track record is admirable. When Ann Coulter did visit, she was confronted with a packed audience largely opposed to her viewpoints. During the question-and-answer segment, she wrangled with student after student, exposing both the ignorance of her own views and the sophisticated tolerance of Georgetown students. The event was a model for what free speech in action looks like, the kind of rigorous debate that students wary of punishment may shy away from in class discussions.
The college years are about an exchange of ideas, both enlightened and distasteful. Georgetown must either abandon its censorship policies or acknowledge that it is denying its students a vital aspect of intellectual growth. I strongly encourage the former.
Or am I allowed to say that?
Mark Joseph Stern is a senior in the College. LETTERS OF THE LAW appears every other Tuesday.