November 10, 2005

Tuesday’s forum was a necessary first step

Tuesday’s Campus Climate Forum was a wonderful renewal of attention to serious issues that confront the University, mainly involving race. As many speakers suggested, anyone who thinks the issues are not worth serious attention are people who just don’t get it. But as administrators start to evolve a repressive speech code, they are threatening to cross the line from moral censure to unconstitutional violations of student freedoms.

Tuesday’s event was a great example of the kind of moral outburst that should follow any significant violation of community norms. When a norm is violated, the violators need to hear loud and clear that most of the rest of the community disapproves. Public violations of community norms are usually unwise, because they tend to result in negative social consequences for the perpetrators.

Indeed, moral censure and negative social consequences are especially important punishments in educational institutions, where students come for some degree of moral education in addition to intellectual development. These punishments often fit the crime and can go a long way in teaching the perpetrators the appropriate lessons.

This is precisely why the University was right not to further discipline the students who held the infamous party. Community norms should be policed by the community. And administrators who have made clear that the party violated community norms also have done the right thing. I might go so far as to support specific lines in University policy to reinforce the observation that such violations are likely to suffer public censure and significant social consequences.

But I draw the line there. The University should never refuse to authorize a party with an offensive theme that is to be held in a private room and without University funds. No University administrator should be allowed to shut down a private party that develops into something offensive, so long as nothing illegal is occurring. And students who do nothing worse than break community norms, however serious the breach, should be fully protected from official disciplinary action.

To cross any of those lines, the University would be violating University Statute 21, which was quoted in a letter sent to all students this week by VP Stephen Klass. Among other things, the statute prohibits all members of the University from interfering with the freedom of association. Klass’s letter also strongly emphasizes the importance of protecting the freedom of speech. And it is well known, and courts of law seem to consistently agree, that offensive speech is very well protected as a constitutional guarantee.

Again, if you think the real issue with the notorious party is freedom of speech or freedom of association, you’re missing something important. But it is deeply incorrect to fight offensive speech with a repressive speech code. Unfortunately, I see administrators laying the groundwork for such a thing. Dean Klass told MTV, believe it or not, that “when things like this happen people feel marginalized and it affects our ability to have open and free discourse.” Well, yes and no. Courts have consistently ruled that offensive speech is itself a part of free and open discourse, and they have consistently ruled that a school’s attempts to prevent offense by restricting speech are unconstitutional. Schools have argued that repressing speech actually serves freedom of speech, but these arguments, like the suggestion in Dean Klass’s comment, have consistently failed. Usually a school capitulates quickly and gives up its speech code before the case goes to trial.

Likewise, when Deputy Provost Ken Warren suggested that “external intervention” is sometimes necessary when thoughtless actions are committed, I hope he meant exactly what the University has done in the present case: to apply moral censure and encourage the community to reassert our values, complex as they are, but not to discipline anyone. External intervention should also be preemptive in terms of (1) promoting awareness so that offensive events are minimized, and (2) warning potential offenders that breaking community norms can have serious social consequences. At the same time, it is vital that the University reaffirm its commitment to freedom of association and freedom of speech by announcing that offensive speech is technically protected and that no party will be censored or shut down simply because of its theme. The University’s guarantees should be at least as strong as the Constitution’s.