Archive for Sunday, March 1, 1992


March 1, 1992


Maggie Childs would like to see a day when "harmful" speech falls silent at Kansas University.

And even if it takes years of work, she wants to make people aware that the presence of such speech can lead to what she calls a non-productive learning environment.

"At this point, I can say it is our intention to draft another policy statement, or philisophical statement, on free speech vs. hate speech," said Childs, chair of KU's Human Relations Committee, which recently drafted a controversial free speech resolution that eventually was killed by the University Council.

"We'll probably come at it in a different way," she said. "If it means we have to get together and knock heads and rewrite this every year for 20 years, we'll do it because it's important.''

THE NON-BINDING HRC resolution, approved by the University Senate Executive Committee on Jan. 31, said KU encourages free speech except that deemed "only to threaten violence, property damage or lawless action" and that which has ``no essential part of any exposition of ideas and (is) of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from (it) is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.''

The policy proposal was rejected by the University Council on Feb. 6, to the relief of KU free-speech advocates, which said the resolution was too broad.

"Every once in a while we want to rediscover the First Amendment around here," said Ted Frederickson, associate professor of journalism who is against the establishment of any type of speech policy or statement at KU. "I have no objections to the school saying it's against racism and hate speech, but to say that we can ban or punish because of that that's wrong.''

Frederickson said neither the government nor KU should be in the business of outlining which words and actions are "harmful."

ALTHOUGH the resolution is dead for now, it is rooted in a growing trend at the nation's colleges and universities in their attempts to curb a rising number of verbal and physical attacks on individuals based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and other factors.

Roughly 125 of the nation's 3,200 higher education institutions have adopted some sort of policy designed to curb "hate speech," said Robert Kreiser, associate secretary of the Washington, D.C.-based American Association of University Professors.

Some of the codes, such as those implemented at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Michigan, have been struck down by the courts as unconstitutional. Others' speech policies, including those at Stanford and the University of California at Los Angeles, have not been legally challenged, KU professors said.

Even though KU's University Council decided against instituting a hate-speech policy, several professors and administrators contacted last week expressed different opinions on the university's need for such a policy.

VICTORIA THOMAS, general counsel at KU, said the university's existing definition of harassment, as specified in the Office of Affirmative Action's Racial and Ethnic Harassment Policies and Procedures, could be interpreted as a speech code in itself.

According to the affirmative action policy, harassment is defined as:

"Behavior or conduct addressed directly to an individual(s)'' and that "threatens violence or property damage."

"`Fighting words,' such as racial and ehtnic epithets, slurs and insults."

"Slander, libel, or obscene speech that advocates racial, ethnic, or religious discrimination, hatred or persecution."

"It's not necessarily a speech code, although you can look at the policy and see it has some implications on free speech," Thomas said.

"This was not drafted to be a free speech document but it does have those implications," Thomas said. "I don't know if the individuals who are involved in this free speech statement know that we already have this in our policy."

FREDERICKSON agrees, saying KU does not need a speech policy because sanctions under the harassment policies already exist.

Tim Miller, professor of religious studies and a University Council member, said such a policy would be fine as a non-binding resolution, but should not be enforceable.

If the policy outlawed a certain racial epithet, he said, "then what would be next?"

"Just how far do you want to go with it?" he said. ``I think once you outlaw harmful speech . . . you're on a slippery slope."

However, Danny Kaiser, assistant dean of student life, said KU should have a philosophy statement outlining "how we would like people to treat each other."

"There's a big difference between enforcement and a teaching tool that's what I'd like this (HRC proposal) to be," said Kaiser, who serves on the HRC committee.

"IT'S NOT going to be the enforcement of a policy that changes people's attitudes, it's going to be the educational process," he said, adding that student groups could use such a philosophy statement to "educate" the rest of the university community about harmful speech.

The chairman of SenEx, Tom Beisecker, also said KU should have an all-encompassing policy statement on hate speech because various university policies are limited to specific areas, such as racial or gender harassment.

Tom Berger, acting director of the affirmative action office, said a single, non-binding policy statement that would cover various types of harmful speech would be appropriate but would have little effect.

"It's like when (President) Bush told us we haven't been in a recession," he said. "I don't think a statement would actually do anything."

DAVID AMBLER, vice chancellor for student affairs, said he didn't think the university needed ``any more statements about speech.''

"This institution both in word and in deed has asserted its strong belief that it serves as a forum for different points of view even if those points of view are ones we don't like,'' he said.

But Elizabeth Banks, associate professor of classics and a SenEx member, said it was important for students, faculty and administrators to discuss the free speech issue before KU has a controversial "episode."

Past controversies at KU involving free speech issues have included visits by the Rev. Louis Farrakhan in 1985, the Ku Klux Klan in 1988 and a planned display of Nazi memorabilia in the Spencer Museum of Art in 1978. Farrakhan and Klan speakers were allowed to give presentations; the Nazi exhibit was canceled by the KU administration.

"THE QUESTION is, `Is the kind of damage that can be done by that individual (speaker or display) enough to warrent limiting his free speech?'" Banks said. "The permanent university community has a responsibility to the non-permanent university community to have a clear viewpoint on this issue."

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