The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Commentary April 20, 2007

The Right Stuff: The Death of A Speech Code

What’s so great about America? One answer among many is that in the United States, the people’s right to free speech is recognized and enshrined in the law of the land. In a world replete with authoritarians and despots, this is a rare and wonderful thing. Here the flame of liberty burns brightly.

That flame, ignited 231 years ago by a courageous band of men with a revolutionary idea, extends throughout our republic — in the public square, in our churches and synagogues and in our family rooms. But there is one vital quarter in America in which freedom of speech is seriously threatened today: the academy.

How ironic that it should be universities, ostensibly safe havens for the unfettered pursuit of knowledge and truth, that place restrictions on free expression. Yet this is the sad reality. Student regulations, for example, often include speech codes that prohibit any expression deemed offensive by others.

Administrators at Syracuse University used such a policy last year to sanction the Chairman of the College Republicans for hosting conservative speaker Ann Coulter on campus. And at San Francisco State University this year, administrators brandished a similar code to threaten members of the College Republicans who had stepped on terrorist emblems — the flags of Hamas and Hezbollah — at a rally last fall.

Oberlin, too, has a speech code. The Student Regulations, Policies, and Procedures include this: “&hellip;any form of intimidation, abuse or harassment based on race, ethnic origin, religion, creed, political persuasion, handicap, gender or sexual orientation is contrary to the ideals of Oberlin College. Perpetrators of such behavior can be subject to appropriate College adjudication processes, leading potentially to disciplinary action.”

Translation: freedom of speech for all&hellip;as long as no one is offended. This policy is clearly unconstitutional. Any expression that could be construed as “intimidation” or “abuse” by a hypersensitive student or a zealous administrator is prohibited on campus. Free speech lives not at Oberlin.

Adding insult to injury, members of the faculty — the same faculty that imposed these speech restrictions on students — have exempted themselves from the policy. This is unjust. There is, however, an easy solution: the faculty should immediately repeal this speech code. If it is unwilling to do so, honor demands that the faculty hold itself to its own standards. And I know the perfect place to start.

Professor Marc Blecher has a sticker on his office door that reads: “Lobotomies for Republicans: It’s the Law.” This statement, which threatens many Oberlin students with physical harm, no doubt qualifies as “intimidation, abuse or harassment based on&hellip;political persuasion.” So let’s get the judicial proceedings rolling. Or did the administration suddenly get cold feet?

Yes, Blecher’s sticker is insensitive and childish. But should we muzzle ourselves simply to prevent a few injured sensitivities here and there? We should not. A student body, like a free people, collapses when we dare not speak our minds for fear of offending those around us. That’s not freedom of speech and that’s not the American way.

Let us instead affirm the principles of the Founders this spring. Let this faculty declare the death of a speech code.


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