Campuses struggle to define free speech

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The issue of free speech is getting a sharp test on America's college campuses.

At universities from Berkeley to Brown, a controversial ad placed in campus newspapers has pitted student publications against their readers, and freedom of expression against perceived racism.

In response to the ad, which argues against giving reparations for slavery to African-Americans, student groups have protested - in one case taking thousands of papers to keep the message from getting out. Some editors have apologized for the ad, angering free-speech defenders.

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The conundrum has highlighted the difficulties campuses face as they try to foster both racial sensitivity and free debate. And it's left educators and students wondering if the image of college as a place where all views can be heard is just a 1960s ideal.

"There is less discussion of controversial issues on college campuses than anywhere else in society, and that's a tragedy," says Harvey Silverglate, co-author of "The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses."

Colleges are much more diverse than they were 40 years ago. But some experts say that just as students are being asked to be more accepting of one another, they have become less tolerant of viewpoints that challenge their own, or are not considered "politically correct."

Administrators are part of the problem, say critics like Mr. Silverglate, an attorney and adviser to Brown's student chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. He says schools are imposing more rules about speech that is considered harassing and looking the other way when students take actions that suppress views, like stealing papers.

Don't like today's issue? Steal it.

Theft of college papers has increased dramatically in the last decade, according to the Washington-based Student Press Law Center, which advises high school and college papers on their First Amendment rights. Before a high-profile case of paper theft in 1993 at the University of Pennsylvania, there were about a half-dozen incidents of theft per year. Since then, the number has ranged from a dozen to as many as 40 in an academic year.

The pattern suggests that the definition of open discussion on campuses is changing. More students respond with disbelief and anger at the utterance of unpopular opinions, educators say.

Nearly 30 campus newspapers decided not to run the anti-reparations ad offered by conservative pundit David Horowitz. But on many of the 13 campuses where the ad has appeared - including the University of California at Berkeley and at Davis, Brown University in Providence, R.I., the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Duke University in Durham, N.C. - protesters have charged papers with being insensitive to African-American heritage and complicating efforts to help racial groups reach common ground.

"It really angered me because ... this created more of a rift between the various students on campus," says Goldie Pritchard, a student of West African descent at UC-Davis who works at the campus Cross-Cultural Center. "I think it's important to have a dialogue, but there are people who will take that [ad] at face value and not look at the whole picture."

Some student objectors have taken action to make sure their opposition to the ad is heard, storming college papers' offices and, in the case of Brown, taking virtually an entire press run of 4,000 papers. Since then, several editions carrying the ad have circulated.

The stealing of papers troubled Carl Takei, the head of Brown's chapter of the ACLU. He and other students formed an organization called Students of Color Against Censorship shortly after the papers were taken and took out their own ad in The Brown Daily Herald.

"We were horrified that a group of students acting in the name of the minority community was suppressing dialogue and censoring opposing viewpoints," Mr. Takei says. "We don't believe that viewpoints should be censored because people find them offensive."

What surprises many observers is that minority groups would squelch speech, given that historically they have been most threatened by censorship.

Not everyone points the finger at political correctness. Todd Gitlin, a professor of culture and communication at New York University, says students don't have the same affection for free speech as he witnessed in the 1960s. That sentiment, he says, has been replaced by indifference.

"There's been a devaluation of reason," Mr. Gitlin says. "Today, debate just seems like a drag. Video games are more interesting. The life of the mind and democracy have become a side show."

But Gitlin suggests this new apathy may be linked to school administrators' growing role as fundraisers - something that makes them reluctant to let tensions between students flare and draw the ire of concerned parents and donors.

"It's a tragedy of American higher education that administrators are fundraisers," he says. "In general, they are politicians who are looking to their monied constituencies and want to protect their multiethnic flank."

Tougher guidelines on speech

In the past decade, administrations have toughened guidelines for harassment and acceptable speech. The University of Wisconsin-Madison, for example, has had its current faculty speech code in place since 1999. It states that "some hurtful expressions ... play no meaningful role in the free exchange of ideas; they may, indeed, inhibit that exchange...."

Robert O' Neil is a former president of the University of Wisconsin and the University of Virginia who now teaches a constitutional law class on church and state at the latter. He intentionally tries not offend anyone. "I feel I owe it to my students," he says. "All of them are more likely to be able to learn than if I ran the risk of offending anyone unwittingly."

He attributes this careful treatment by him and other colleagues in part to the increasing sensitivity among students. But he defends the approach as the best way to promote learning in the classroom.

In the case of the Horowitz ad, protecting speech and student sensitivities can be a difficult balancing act. Some officials responded with forums for discussion after the ad ran, others built websites offering opposing positions.

"Probably over time we will change [our website] to include pros and cons, but for the immediate future, we thought it was important to give the student community here the message that there is another point of view," says Jesus Trevino, director of the Intergroup Relations Center at Arizona State University in Tempe. He says the student paper, which later printed an apology, should have first offered space for opposing views.

The Daily Californian at Berkeley is one of the papers criticized by free-speech advocates for apologizing for the ad.

"Our position has been completely distorted," says editor Daniel Hernandez, explaining that the editorial board didn't change its mind about the ad. It never saw it; the business side made the decision to publish it.

Free debate is very much a part of Berkeley, Mr. Hernandez says, noting that his paper often takes conservative positions. But he is critical of Mr. Horowitz's approach, which he says aims to pick a fight rather than promote civil discourse. Hernandez also takes aim at other papers, wondering if they are getting involved with the ad to draw attention to themselves and then "preaching about the First Amendment [when] we haven't even mastered our craft yet."

Some educators suggest that nostalgia for the good old days in which everything could be freely discussed on campuses is based on a myth. "We need one institution in this world in which any question can be asked and any answer found," says Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College at Columbia University in New York. "No institution has been closer, but universities have never been able to do this."

Send email to campbellk@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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