Faculty members and students at Cal State Northridge are sharply divided over a proposal to impose a speech code forbidding the use of language that is offensive to racial minorities, gays and other groups.
Advocates of the so-called policy against discriminatory harassment maintain that it is a university's mission to safeguard the civil rights of students by providing an environment free of racism and bigotry.
"Abusive and insulting language does not contribute to the free exchange of ideas and is unacceptable behavior on a university campus," said Faculty Senate President Albert Baca, who favors the policy.
But opponents argue that a university's role is to expose students to all viewpoints by encouraging the free flow of diverse ideas and protecting and the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.
"We forget we are a university . . . where conflict will be worked out through rigorous exchange," said Jorge Garcia, dean of the School of Humanities. "The key is in challenging ideas that are unacceptable. We cannot give up that right. It is fundamental to what we are all about."
The proposal calls for establishing an informal committee of students, faculty and administrators to mediate complaints by people who claim they have been harassed. However, the committee would not have the power to discipline anyone brought before before it on harassment charges. The panel could, however, refer cases to the university's affirmative action office, which does have authority to mete out discipline for violations of university policy.
Under the proposal, discriminatory harassment "includes any act, verbal or physical, that has the effect of insulting, condemning, threatening, stigmatizing or otherwise victimizing an individual or a small number of individuals based exclusively or primarily on their race, religion, color, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, ancestry or age."
In proposing a policy governing speech on campus, Cal State Northridge becomes part of a nationwide movement to enforce speech codes on university campuses in the name of discouraging prejudice and discrimination. More than 130 universities have adopted similar policies, despite opponents' claims that such prohibitions are unconstitutional.
Only one policy has been tested in the courts. A federal judge struck down the University of Michigan's speech code as unconstitutional this year.
It was at a commencement speech at that university May 4 that President Bush entered the controversy, coming out against such policies.
"Although the movement arises from the laudable desire to sweep away the debris of racism and sexism and hatred, it replaces old prejudices with new ones," Bush said. "It declares certain topics off-limits, certain expressions off-limits, even certain gestures off-limits."
Northridge's proposed policy, developed by a task force of faculty members, students and administrators, will be considered by the university's Faculty Senate today. It was approved by the Associated Students Senate last month.
"I don't understand the fear," said Associated Students President Michelle Cooper, who supports the policy. "No one is trying to inhibit freedom. . . . The policy was not meant to censor the exchange of ideas. It was designed specifically to encourage dialogue between the offender and the person who was offended."
"What we hope is that this policy will resolve things carelessly said in a positive manner," said Jeannette Mann, the university's affirmative action coordinator who helped draft the policy. "Obviously, if a person is really a racist, you can't change that."
She said the task force did not intend to curtail the free flow of ideas.
"We tried to draft a policy that would balance civil rights versus free speech," Mann said. "We feel that it has almost nothing to do with what's going on in the classroom because discussion there is not directed at an individual."
While acknowledging that the policy is well-intentioned, critics say its effect will be to limit free speech on campus.
"Restrictive policies such as the one proposed have a chilling effect on all speech--inoffensive as well," said Kenneth Devol, a journalism professor. "When a committee comes marching in and tells you what you've done wrong, it's chilling."
Devol said the problem with the proposal is that it attempts to control speech rather than conduct. "Conduct can be controlled, but pure speech--even offensive speech--cannot."
School President James Cleary, who will have the final say on whether the policy is adopted, said he has taken no position on the issue.