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Archive for Saturday, November 13, 1993

FREE SPEECH SKIRMISH

November 13, 1993

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College campuses seem an appropriate battleground for battles over speech and political correctness.

The war between free speech and political correctness is being waged on an appropriate battlefield: America's college campuses. Skirmishes are being fought on both sides of the issue and may eventually help define the free speech principles that are so important to American society.

Free speech forces won an interesting battle this week at the University of California at Riverside. A ban on a campus fraternity was lifted and two university officials who ordered the ban will be required to attend "First Amendment sensitivity classes."

The fraternity was banned after it produced T-shirts with caricatures of Mexicans holding what appeared to be beer bottles and a caption that read ``It doesn't matter where you come from as long as you know where you are going.'' The fraternity had been in other trouble before -- vandalism, recklessly driving a campus vehicle, showing a pornographic movie on campus -- and the perceived affront to Hispanic students was the last straw.

The fraternity's national organization took the rational approach of ordering the chapter to issue an apology and perform community service work in the Hispanic community. University administrators, however, went off the deep end and banished the fraternity from campus. The fraternity sued, and won a settlement that lifted the fraternity ban and ordered the sensitivity training for administrators.

In another case -- this one at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee -- a white professor was fired after he used the phrase "nigger mentality" to make a point to a class of black students. Students protested and the prof was fired, although he later apologized and 50 students signed a letter in his support. The professor is appealing his firing.

The two stories illustrate the slippery slope that university officials -- or any governmental body or official -- tread when they try to legislate matters of good taste. It is impossible for anyone of any racial or ethnic background to go through life without being confronted by illustrations or comments they find offensive. But it's also impossible for government to eliminate such elements from society without restricting free speech to the point of trying to practice mind control.

Ironically, the fired prof made his offensive remark during a public relations class. One would think a public relations instructor would be more sensitive to his audience. Their reaction to his statement should have taught him a lesson about what is acceptable and in good taste in such a setting.

In the California case, the national fraternity had the right idea. You can't restrict free speech, but you can try to teach fraternity members some manners. It simply isn't in good taste to degrade fellow students who happen to be of Hispanic background. Make them apologize and do community service, but don't try to take away their basic right to free speech. Peer pressure can often produce much more dramatic results than administrative coercion.

Such issues certainly have arisen at other universities, including Kansas University, and the debate is not over. Universities seem like the logical place for such a battle of ideas. It's the kind of debate, however, that can only be conducted through the free flow of ideas and words. That's what the principle of free speech is all about.

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