Free speech controversy at URI

Ashley Herzog
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Posted: May 01, 2007 12:01 AM

This country is now entering its fourth week of debate over whether the phrase “nappy headed hos” is acceptable speech in a public forum. But as the media focuses on the issue of free speech in broadcast, they overlook a venue where first amendment rights are regularly violated: academia. A story from the University of Rhode Island this week suggests that free speech rights are threatened on many campuses. While making phony paeans to “tolerance,” universities use unconstitutional speech codes to suppress ideas that don’t sit well with the politically correct crowd.

The controversy at Rhode Island began last fall, when the College Republicans advertised a satirical “white heterosexual American male” scholarship in the school newspaper. College Republicans president Ryan Bilodeau said the ad was meant to be a humorous spin on affirmative action and identity-based scholarships.

Is a satirical ad in a school newspaper “speech”? Anyone with minimal understanding of the first amendment would say yes. But the Student Senate didn’t think so and declared that the ad violated URI’s anti-discrimination bylaws. The Senate told the group to apologize or face derecognition, an action that would cut off university funding.

But the College Republicans refused to apologize for something they weren’t sorry about, and on April 23, a Student Senate committee voted to derecognize the group. They only backed down when the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) threatened a first amendment lawsuit.

If you assume that selective censorship, forced apologies, and illegal bans on “offensive” speech are isolated incidents, think again. Groups like FIRE receive thousands of complaints each year, mostly from conservative or religious students whose universities apply speech codes only to them. Examples are not difficult to find:

- In October, San Francisco State University attempted to punish the College Republicans for stomping on Hezbollah and Hamas flags during an anti-terrorism rally.

- Administrators at Stetson University forbade students from distributing a conservative newsletter on campus because “elements of the publication lack sensitivity to and respect for diversity and inclusiveness,” according to a statement issued by the university.

- Professors in the Washington State University School of Education threatened to remove a conservative student from the teacher training program unless he attended “diversity training” classes.

Fortunately, the founding fathers forgot to include the “no hurt feelings” clause in the first amendment, which is why policies like these almost never hold up in court. But that doesn’t stop campus radicals from harassing any student who stands up for basic speech rights.

Last year, Georgia Tech senior Ruth Malhotra filed a lawsuit against the school for its unconstitutional speech code, which banned speech that was “injurous” or “maligning.” Malhotra believed the code was being used exclusively by gay-rights groups to prevent conservative Christians from speaking. Under Georgia Tech’s policy, accurately quoting a Bible passage related to homosexuality could constitute “injurous” speech.

Even people who support the gay-rights movement can recognize that others have a constitutional right to criticize it. But, for supporting the concept that people are allowed to say what they want, Malhotra received letters and e-mails threatening beatings, rape, and strangulation. Gay-rights activists passed out Twinkies to students on campus, explaining that Malhotra was “yellow on the outside, white on the inside” and “a Twinkie bitch” (Malhotra is Asian). Authorities suggested that she travel with a police escort in case the tolerant crowd got testy. Although the court sided with Malhotra, her experience most likely had a chilling effect on potential free-speech advocates.

It is ironic that, in an atmosphere that supposedly values free inquiry, it can take enormous courage to point out that free speech rights are for everyone. Only years of politically correct brainwashing can explain the widespread belief that “offensive” ideas should be banned.

It is also telling that speech totalitarianism is often embraced by extreme leftists – the same people that demand “tolerance” and “open-mindedness” toward certain favored groups. If these people are so concerned with tolerance, why do they turn into Stalinist oppressors the second someone says something they don’t like?