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 may be offensive to racial minorities, gays and other groups.
Advocates of the "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 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."
Adopting the policy would make CSUN part of a nationwide movement to enforce speech codes on university campuses in the name of discouraging prejudice and discrimination. Opponents have labeled the movement with the derogatory term "politically correct."
The proposal calls for the establishment of an informal committee of students, faculty and administrators to mediate the complaints of people who say they have been harassed. The committee would have no power to discipline those brought before it but could refer cases to the university's affirmative action office, which is authorized to punish violators of university discrimination policy.
CSUN'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 Student Senate last month.
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." A policy against sexual harassment already exists at CSUN.
More than 130 universities throughout the country have adopted similar policies, despite opponents' claims that such prohibitions are unconstitutional.
So far, only one has been tested in the courts. A federal judge struck down the University of Michigan's speech code as unconstitutional earlier this year.
Opponents maintain the movement is the work of 1960s radicals they say are now rising to powerful faculty positions.
President Bush entered the controversy during a commencement speech May 4 at the University of Michigan, coming out in favor of opponents.
"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."
"I don't understand the fear," said Associated Student 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."
But Graduate School Sen. Bruce Najbergier, who abstained in the vote, said he believes the proposed policy "creates more problems than it solves. . . . Censorship like that bothers me."
Jeannette Mann, the university's affirmative action coordinator who helped draft the policy, said the task force did not intend to curtail the free flow of ideas.
"What we hope is that this policy will resolve things carelessly said in a positive manner," she said. "Obviously, if a person is really a racist, you can't change that.
"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."
But Selase Williams, chairman of Pan-African studies, said that "capricious, subjective language has a chilling effect on education. We cannot in good conscience allow harmful statements. . . . What is really at stake is the protection of white privilege to do what they want."
But 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."
Dean Garcia said that adopting another policy to combat racism on campus would "add to more of what's not working."
CSUN President James Cleary, who will have the final say on whether the policy is adopted, said he has taken no position on the issue. "I created the task force to start a dialogue," he said.
Members of the American Civil Liberties Union, founded to defend First Amendment freedoms, are as divided as the CSUN faculty on the issue of campus speech codes. ACLU affiliates in Southern California, Northern California and San Diego recently established guidelines that basically apply laws covering sexual and racial harassment in the workplace to college campuses.
"Students, like workers who are protected under current law from racial or sexual harassment on the job, are entitled to an environment in which they can perform effectively. . ." Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU's Southern California affiliate, told the Daily Journal, a Los Angeles law publication.
But Marvin Schachter, a Southern California ACLU board member, said that the ACLU's anti-harassment policy "violates the whole tradition of the ACLU . . . the problem of racist speech is a serious one, but should not be fought by suppressing it."
The proposed policy governing speech that will be debated by the Cal State Northridge Academic Senate today contains several hypothetical examples of what its authors do and do not consider "discriminatory harassment." The examples include:
* In a classroom before an exam, a white student hurls a racial epithet at a Vietnamese student and tells him to go back where he came from and stop taking up America's space. The Vietnamese student is hurt and upset. This is a violation of the policy because the racial slur was directed at a specific individual.
* In another instance, a student in a political science class states that restrictive immigration policies are a good thing because Mexicans are lazy and make no contribution to the economy. This does not violate the policy because the remark was made during a discussion of ideas, even though Latino students may have been upset.
* An African-American student returns to her dorm room and finds a picture of a lynching posted on her door with her name written across the body of the victim. This is a violation of the policy because it is directed at a specific individual.
* The content of a speech in which a lecturer publicly states that "the Holocaust was a good thing because it destroyed members of an inferior religion" is not a violation of the policy. But if, during an impromptu conversation after the speech, the lecturer uses ethnic slurs while pointing at three Jewish students, that is a violation of the policy.