John Leo

An actual debate on the merits of racial preferences has taken place on an American campus, Utah State University. Whether the Guinness World Records book is interested in this news is not certain. I know I am. Astonishingly, the university administration did not step in to halt the proceedings on the grounds that feelings might be hurt. The debate was civil, with some booing and cheering on both sides. Some students seemed a bit testy or angry. But as one student sponsor of the debate said, "that?s part of politics and discussing divisive issues." This breakthrough raises a startling question: is it possible that other universities will begin experimenting with free speech?

Could be. The fog of censorship on campus is beginning to lift, thanks to the pressure of litigation, bad publicity and ridicule from a new and more pugnacious generation of collegians. The litigation is being handled by groups such as the Center for Individual Rights, the Alliance Defense Fund, and -- most spectacularly -- by the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which is now a major player in the campus wars. These groups have been winning free-speech cases one after another, creating momentum that is forcing many censorship-minded administrators into a defensive crouch.

For most of the 1990s, speech restrictions met little resistance. After the courts struck down campus speech codes, universities simply (and dishonestly) recast the speech codes as behavior and anti-harassment policies, using extremely broad language to forbid expression that annoys, embarrasses or ridicules. The language made almost every accused student guilty as charged. The mainstream press ignored the issue and students generally held their tongues, fearing retaliation. Now the students know how to call FIRE, and FIRE knows how to call Fox News. "The difference is that students now know they can win," said Thor Halvorssen, who recently stepped down as the chief executive officer of FIRE. Sometimes the victories are astonishingly easy. When FIRE sued Citrus College in California, the college quickly yielded, lifting its policy banning all "offensive . . . expression or language" and eliminating its policy of confining student protest to three small areas on campus.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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