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The Problem With Speech Codes : Well-intentioned Cal State Fullerton gives it the good college try

A university must be careful not to stifle expression in its well-intentioned efforts to protect cherished diversity, especially as Latinos, Asian-Americans and African-Americans combined are becoming the majority population in California.

Keeping the proper balance between free expression and respect for all people is no easy feat, as Cal State Fullerton is finding out while debating a proposed non-discrimination policy that contains campus speech guidelines.

The document includes some laudable expressions of intent about creating an atmosphere of tolerance on campus. It even provides more safeguards than are in the state administrative code, which prohibits abusive behavior directed toward anyone in the academic community.

But like other campus speech codes around the country, the pending guidelines flirt unnecessarily with the fundamental franchise of any university: the commitment to academic freedom that is basic to the spirited and free exchange of ideas.

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Existing codes that govern behavior on campus should of course be vigorously enforced. A red flag over a speech code must not be interpreted as a license for every nut who wants to disrupt a campus function or to yell racist, sexist or homophobic slurs. But codified restrictions on campus speech, while meant to protect such groups as racial minorities, women and gays from harm, may actually prove divisive. Some now suggest that the pendulum has swung too far toward the interests of historically aggrieved minorities; by contrast, others say that opposing speech codes is an acceptable way to demean legitimate attempts to protect minorities and others who still encounter hostility on campus.

We would suggest that as laudable as efforts to promote harmony and inclusiveness on campus are, these goals must not be allowed to subvert the principle of academic freedom. The impulse to foster a civil environment on campus is appropriate; but a university need not muddy the waters with subjective speech codes which can undermine that very impulse for civility.


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