Sacrificing Free Speech for 'Principles' Is a Mistake

    Few likely thought of free speech when they read Chancellor Marye Anne Fox’s latest reaffirmation of UCSD’s “Principles of Community.” But they certainly should have.

    Roy Pak/Guardian

    “We affirm the right to freedom of expression at UCSD,” begins one such “principle.” The next sentence, unfortunately, concludes that by “affirming” this right, UCSD actually grossly restricts it: “We promote open expression of our individuality and our diversity within the bounds of courtesy, sensitivity, confidentiality and respect.”

    No two sentences could be more intellectually dishonest. After all, how can free expression truly be “free” when it’s bound by such amorphous and vague values as “courtesy” and “respect”?

    The unfortunate problem in the debate over university rules regulating speech is that each side has attempted to draw from the extreme. Supporters point to hateful publications and gay bashing, asking: How can we tolerate this in the name of free speech? Opponents, on the other hand, point to cases when these codes are used to stifle legitimate political debate. Neither view does the issue justice.

    The biggest danger of speech codes like those embodied in the Principles of Community is that they erode the speech found on the margin, between messages that societies already uniformly ban through regulation of libel, obscenity and the like, and those that they defend with Voltaire-like zeal.

    Before dismissing this as slippery-slope, conspiracy-theory drivel, consider this: Members of the A.S. Council used the Principles of Community to justify a Student-Run Television ban on pornography. Porn, they argued quite reasonably, offends and denigrates women, and should thus be regulated to assure “courtesy, sensitivity, … and respect.”

    The problem is that offensive speech and provocative, constitutionally protected speech often overlap; speech codes tip the scale in favor of protecting sensibilities, at the expense of expression.

    Anti-Semitism presents a perfect case study of the whole spectrum of ideas. For example, few would disagree with German laws that ban the Nazi Party; no one, after all, wants another Hitler. However, European restrictions on Holocaust denial seem iffier. And surely, attacks on academic freedom by some American Jews — who accuse university curriculums of being too critical of Israel and too pro-Palestine — attempt to cloak a political issue in the guise of ethnic sensitivity.

    At the end, though, a ban on anti-Semitic speech could be used to justify all three of these, resulting in a university community — the proverbial “marketplace for ideas” — that does more to encourage conformity than to promote critical thinking.

    Indeed, speech codes provide universities an excuse for not doing their job: Teaching students how to think, and how to separate facts from fiction. Instead of outlawing the denial of the Holocaust outright, let’s simply allow those ignorant of documented historical facts to expose themselves to ridicule. And instead of making martyrs out of them, let’s allow gay bashers to speak their mind, and see them get laughed off of Library Walk (which happens every year). These are the marks of tolerant communities, not the rules imposed on their members.

    This, of course, still does not explain why society must tolerate the most offensive types of expression: Hate speech, like the kind spread by the Koala and the Nazi Party. The answer, however, is that hate speech is simply the symptom of underlying social tensions, and banning their expression does little to fix the problem.

    Hitler did not rise to power because he was a charismatic speaker who fooled the people; the populace embraced him because hyperinflation, post-WWI embarrassment and other social ills left them vulnerable to extremists. Similarly, the current ban on the Nazi Party has done little to exterminate neo-Nazi sentiment in Europe, which has actually been rising in recent years.

    The Koala touches raw nerves not because of any racist messages it spreads, but because these messages reflect UCSD’s failure to be a welcoming place to students of all colors and creeds; banning its publication simply pushes these problems to the back of our mind, when its messages, as offensive as they are, may instead provoke us to take action.

    And maybe that’s why UCSD has Principles of Community that don’t represent the principles of its community at all. After all, it’s easier and cheaper to pay lip service to tolerance with rules that “celebrate … diversity and support for all cultures,” than to actually fix the underlying problems of access and socioeconomic inequality that currently make real diversity impossible. Voltaire is surely rolling over in his grave.

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