Speech Codes and Lawsuits

University of Michigan

March 16, 1998

Eugene L. Roberts. Jr., Professor of Journalism at the University of Maryland and former managing editor at The New York Times had this to say:

"......   gradually in most of the nineteen seventies and eighties, freedom of expression prevailed over the fear of words.

Then, about ten years ago, disquieting developments began recurring on campus after campus -- the adoption of speech codes; lawsuits and assaults on the tenure of professors for opinions and, sometimes, fact uttered in the classroom; the seizure of all, or a major part, of entire issues of campus newspapers; the public burning of publications that angered some students. In some instances. but thankfully not all, college administrations looked the other way.

These incidents escalated in the first half of the nineteen nineties, then subsided a bit but still they surface to this day, much like a stubborn virus that will not go away. In the last fifteen months, publications have been seized, or burned, or both, on campuses as far flung as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and the University of California at Berkeley.

Precipitating incidents have included an editorial against affirmative action to a cartoon against abortion. Sometimes the offending publications were temperate, sometimes intemperate, sometimes facts were correct, sometimes they were not.

All of this, of course, is fully within the scope of freedoms envisioned by the architects of American liberty. More than 265 years ago in the June 10, 1731 issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette, Benjamin Franklin had this to say:

"I request all who are angry with me on Account of printing things they don't like calmly to consider these following Particulars

1. That the Opinions of Men are almost always as various as their Faces...

2. That the Business of Printing has chiefly to do with Men's Opinions; most things that are printed tending to promote some, or opposite .......

4. That it is unreasonable in any one Man or Set of Men to expect to be pleas'd with every thing that is printed... (or, I might add, said)

5. Printers are educated in the Belief that   by the Publick; and that when Truth and Error have fair Play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter…"

The words of Franklin, like the guarantees of the first amendment, have been overlooked too frequently on all too many campuses in the past decade. Freedom of speech, the most fundamental of all democratic values, has been transmogrified again and again into freedom from speech-- not, I believe, what the drafters of the Bill of Rights had in mind.

In the past decade, speech prevention has often come from groups that have triumphed over or are still struggling against discrimination and unequal treatment. Some -- not by any means all -- seem to believe speech prevention will secure and consolidate progress. This flies in the face of history."




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