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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Civility vs. freedom

The successful protest by black students and their sympathizers of a perceived racially hostile environment at the University of Missouri has sparked renewed discussion about politically correct speech. In this case criticism came from the right, but since college campuses began adopting speech codes at least three decades ago, concerns have been voiced from diverse quarters, including civil libertarians.

I’ll begin by laying out what I take to be the tension at the heart of the issue. On the one hand, these institutions should provide environments that aren’t demeaning or threatening to any of the identifiable groups that work or study in them. On the other hand, they have a special mission to encourage unfettered inquiry into, and discussion of, even the most controversial subjects. In short, civility vs. academic freedom.

In U.S. society beyond the campuses some of that tension exists, but discerning what speech falls on which side of the dividing line isn’t so pressing a challenge.

In public — e.g., on the street, on the Web — expression that grossly violates civility is protected by the First Amendment. We must tolerate racial, ethnic, religious and gender slurs, even hate speech. Long ago we decided that such speech poses a lesser threat than granting government the power to suppress speech it deems unfit. The former causes emotional distress; the latter leads to tyranny.

By contrast, we have enforceable laws designed to curb hurtful speech in controlled settings such as schools and businesses. For instance, the U.S. Department of Education has used in this way Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in programs receiving federal funding. And Title VII of that act outlawed sexual harassment in the workplace. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s regulations and guidelines to prevent it include certain kinds of remarks. But unlike universities, lower schools and businesses aren’t obliged to protect expression about controversial subjects.

So it’s on college campuses that the challenge is acute. I’ll address the challenge by citing two instances of speech that one organization regarded as out-of-bounds.

The AMCHA Initiative claims its mission is to investigate and document anti-semitism at U.S. colleges and universities. The University of Oregon is among the campuses currently listed on AMCHA’s website as a site of anti- semitic incidents. Two incidents are listed.

One took place a few days ago. A UO student was arrested and charged with intimidation for allegedly shouting anti-semitic slurs at another student outside a Jewish fraternity. The other, dated May 15, was a student gathering on Collier Lawn to commemorate and mourn the Nakba, when more than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes during the 1948 war. The website says the students “held flags and signs, and offered rich black coffee and dates to anyone who stopped by.”

Doubtless, the gathering disturbed some Jewish students, and perhaps stirred fears that criticism of Israel will fuel antisemitism at UO. Yet, I believe that, unlike the first instance, it didn’t offend against civility in any proper meaning of the word, and that academic freedom requires university administrators to resist the widespread pressure to curtail such expression.

One way to distinguish hate speech from speech that discomforts us is that the former isn’t offered as discussable opinion; its aim is to inflict pain. Thus, it has no place on campus. But expression of views that make us uncomfortable advances the mission of higher education. A fine institution should challenge our complacencies time after time.

Herb Rothschild Jr. is chairman of the board of Peace House.