SPEECH CODES: AN ANSWER TO OUR PROBLEMS?
Freedom of speech is an issue that has been debated in America since the settlers first inhabited our country. The First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees the right of freedom of speech to all Americans. Since then, people have spoken freely about government, religion, injustice, and basically anything else that they have wanted to. However, this freedom is not always given. Evidence of this can be found on college campuses across the nation. More and more colleges and universities are now enforcing speech codes, regulations that prohibit speech or other conduct that is abusive, threatening, or demeaning to certain groups because of their gender, race, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or ethnic background. This type of speech is also known as hate speech. A great controversy has arisen over the enforcement of these codes. We must now decide whether or not speech codes are constitutional, and what is more important for an academic environment, an atmosphere in which one can speak freely about his or her beliefs, or one in which no one feels persecuted or insulted.
Proponents of speech codes believe that speech codes are great tools for assisting the education process. They feel that speech that is very offensive to certain groups of people impedes upon the learning process by creating hostile and uncomfortable classroom environments when students of opposing groups are brought together. They believe that education, the primary reason for attending college, takes a back seat to such issues. Therefore, they believe that this problem could be solved by the enforcement of speech codes.
Proponents of speech codes also feel that the First Amendment does not actually protect all types of speech, namely hate speech. They argue that freedom of speech was given in order to speak out against things such as corruption and injustice, not to give racists and bigots the right to insult and hurt people due to circumstances these people cannot control. After all, the Constitution states that all men are created equal. Proponents argue that the allowance of such hate speech, using the permission of the First Amendment nonetheless, is a perversion of this great proclamation.
Proponents also feel that too much free speech, including hate speech, is one of the top reasons for recent increases in hate crimes. Hate crimes are also on the rise on college campuses across the nation. For example, victims have had crosses burned in their yards, swastikas painted on their synagogues and dorms, and have been physically attacked. Supporters believe that these crimes could be prevented, or at least decreased if hate speech was not allowed. They feel that the allowance of hate speech only serves to gain support for those who speak it, and that prohibition of hate speech is the key.
Proponents of speech codes may have thought that they were doing the right thing, but they have been misled. Speech codes that are enforced by government-financed state colleges and universities are in clear violation of the Constitution because they are forms of government censorship. All speech, no matter how offensive it may be, is protected by the First Amendment. The right of free speech is indivisible, which means that if the right is taken away from one, it is taken away from all. Furthermore, freedom of speech is vital to the remaining rights given in the First Amendment. Restricting speech would also restrict freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and so on. Moreover, one must realize that although hate speech may be protected, hate crimes are not. In fact, the most effective measure to combat hate crimes may be speech itself.
Another problem with speech codes is that they are not clear enough. Unclear boundaries and vaguely worded prohibitions have created quite a lot of confusion for those trying to understand the codes. Many people are now pressing charges against anything and everything that the may find offensive. Charges have been brought up against people who have written comical parodies about ethnic foods in campus magazines. Charges have also been brought up against people who have made non-racist, derogatory remarks to other races. Charges such as these are usually dropped, but in some cases, people have actually been fired from jobs or expelled from school. However, it would be nearly impossible to define the boundaries of speech codes. In order for this to happen, someone would have to make himself the authority, the law. This clearly exhibits the fact that speech codes are not the answer.
Speech codes are designed to resolve issues dealing with many forms of racism and bigotry. However, speech codes do not resolve these issues; they only suppress them. Ignoring such problems will not cause them to go away, as speech is a result of what is inside of a person. One critic of speech codes stated, Verbal purity is not social change. Freedom of speech also allows students to plan counter attacks on hate speech. Speech can be fought with speech, allowing those who discriminate against others to see the issue from an alternative point of view and to possibly change their own view. Speech codes would prevent this change from occurring, causing them to defeat their own purpose.
Finally, speech codes on college campuses defeat one of the main purposes of college in general. The main purpose of most colleges is to assist learning through open debate and free inquiry and to enlighten students. Speech codes directly restrict this form of learning. Little can be learned in a classroom in which the students are afraid to voice their opinions. All views and opinions should be entitled to be heard so that others may explore them and decide for themselves what they believe. Students may not always agree or change their minds on certain subjects, but hopefully they will be able to see the issue from a new angle instead of a one-sided, close-minded point of view. Seeing the world from another s point of view could indeed be the key to finding peace with each other.
After one has examined both sides of the issue of speech codes, it should be clear that speech codes are wrong and are actually digressive to society. Hatred, racism, and bigotry feed on environments where problems are suppressed and ignored. No one should ever be content with ignorance toward these issues. Many people choose to turn their backs on fighting speech codes because they feel that it is only a small battle and that there are more important things to worry about. What people fail to realize is that we give some of our power to the government with each small battle that we lose. Forty years ago, totalitarian governments, much like that in George Orwell s 1984, were thought to be an absolute impossibility. Today, however, when we look at issues such speech codes, we can see that eventual total government control is a distinct possibility. Therefore, it should be our duty as Americans, living in a society built on democracy, to fight to keep the rights that our forefathers once fought to gain for us. So, we must decide where we should begin. Maybe we should start by talking about it.