Campus Slurs Blur Free Speech

IT has long been established that the First Amendment, in guaranteeing freedom of speech, doesn't let you holler ``Fire!'' in a crowded theater. But does it let you holler racial slurs at members of minority communities?

Sadly enough, that very issue is being tested these days on campuses around the nation. Incidents here at Stanford University - like those at the Universities of Massachusetts, Michigan, Wisconsin, and elsewhere - have thrust the ``offensive speech'' question into the center of debate.

Speech, of course, is broadly defined. The issue here sprang from a black-faced caricature of Beethoven posted near black students' rooms last fall. That's a far cry from the racial violence and anti-Semitic incidents on some other campuses. But it has nevertheless created deep concern about ways to restrain human inhumanity.

On one thing most agree: Some sort of restraints are needed. ``Restricting isn't a problem,'' says sophomore Adine Kernberg over a pizza, ``it's who gets to restrict.'' And, of course, the level of the restrictions. Some students have proposed penalties of suspension or dismissal for the perpetrators - arguing that the university is a special place where some freedom-of-speech restraints should be set aside.

That's an argument that university president Donald Kennedy, in a thoughtful interview in his office recently, was not buying. ``I think for Stanford to have a standard of speech which is substantially more restrictive than the First Amendment,'' he says, ``would be a great mistake. I think it is very important for the university to be a place in which unpopular and even offensive ideas can find expression.''

In saying that, he's not at all condoning racial slurs. He does, however, want to shift the ground of the argument. Too often, he says, students victimized by such speech think that ``the only available recourse is to turn to the administration and ask for discipline.'' Far more effective, he says, is the power of community opprobrium directed at the perpetrators, bolstered by the administration's quick condemnation of such activities. ``There's a total misapprehension about the effectiveness of formal disciplinary sanctions executed by the university versus the power of community stigmatization,'' he says.

One can sympathize with his argument. To hedge on First Amendment rights is to step onto a slippery slope where tolerance for diverse views - social, political, religious, scientific - gradually gets restricted in the name of ruling out something that might offend someone. Far better to have more, not less, diversity of speech, and to trust that the community ethic will so respect this diversity that its opposite - the intent to denigrate and ultimately exclude minorities - will fall of its own weight.

It's a noble line of reasoning. But it overlooks a nagging and underlying fear: Are these racial incidents not merely isolated and sporadic, but part of a wave of latent racism trending toward a crest? Are the great strides of recent decades toward a multiracial American society quietly being dismantled?

If that's the case, the great residential universities like Stanford will increasingly face a dilemma. They can set out to espouse intellectual freedom, where all speech is tolerated but dormitory life can be offensive. Or they can build multiracial communities where life is agreeable but some ideas are ruled off the turf. Striking the balance may prove to be the most exacting task a university president can face in the coming decade.

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