First in an occasional series

It was 1993, John Boesky’s freshman year at New York’s Sarah Lawrence College. During an argument with his roommate, Boesky labeled the young man a “faggot.”

Boesky’s friend, Marlin Lask, stood a few feet away and laughed at the comment.

Weeks later, Lask and Boesky were charged with harassment under the school’s speech code. They were sentenced to one year’s social probation and 20 hours of community service. They also were required to see the videotape Homophobia, read “Homophobia on Campus” and write a paper about their changed thoughts on the subject – the penalty for creating what the college termed “a hostile and intimidating atmosphere.”

Norman Siegel, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, told The New York Times the case was “another situation of political correctness run amok; of political correctness being extended into the twilight zone.”

Nationwide, institutions of higher learning are enacting stricter codes in an attempt to curb hate-filled speech on campus.

Proponents say the regulations are necessary to limit prejudiced and hurtful insults. But Alan Kors and Harvey Silverglate, authors of Shadow University, say speech codes are eroding civil liberties.

On some campuses, the meaning of “harassment” has been expanded to include jokes, verbal behavior that produces feelings of “impotence, anger, disenfranchisement and loss of self-esteem, inappropriately directed laughter, inconsiderate jokes, and stereotyping,” the authors write.

No speech code exists at GW, said Karen Warren, the University’s coordinator for Student Judicial Services.

“Speech codes are fairly controversial, and when imposed, it must be done with care because they bring up all sorts of constitutional freedom issues,” Warren said.

“There are some institutions that have tried implementing speech codes – but they are difficult to maintain because except in the case of hate speech or discrimination, it’s difficult to put parameters on speech,” Warren said.

In the GW community, the prevailing standards are outlined in the Guide to Student Rights and Responsibilities:

“Academic institutions exist for the transmission of knowledge, the pursuit of truth, the development of students, and the general well-being of society. Free inquiry and free expression are indispensable to the attainment of these goals. Students should exercise their freedom with responsibility.”

But if speech is used to discriminate against or threaten an individual, the University will respond immediately, Warren said.

“Generally, the more general the code the better, because speech is difficult, if not impossible, to regulate,” Warren said.

“I think the universities that have tried to implement these types of codes have found that the more specific the parameters are that they set, the more difficult it is for them to stand up to the scrutiny of a judicial process,” she said.

Some schools, such as the University of Vermont, have strict, detailed expectations and guidelines:

“Each of us must assume responsibility for becoming educated about racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia/heterosexism, and other forms of oppression so that we may respond to other community members in an understanding and appreciative manner,” the Vermont code reads.

But in 1975, Yale University strove to embrace “unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.”

It rejected the notion “that solidarity, harmony, civility, and mutual respect could be higher values than free expression at a university,” according to the school’s speech code.

Some higher education professionals disagree.

“Academia . has traditionally been dominated by white heterosexual men, and the First Amendment and academic freedom traditionally have protected the rights of white heterosexual men,” Barbara White, a women’s studies professor at the University of New Hampshire, says in Shadow University.

“To us, strict construction of the First Amendment is just another yoke around our necks,” White said.

In the 1980s, the University of Wisconsin joined the ranks of schools with hate speech codes, prohibiting students from making derogatory remarks.

That policy was struck down as unconstitutional by a federal judge in 1991. In addition, the faculty speech code, which had allowed for the punishment of insensitive faculty members, came under attack by a panel of 17 professors, administrators and students who have recently rewritten the language of the code. Academic freedom, rather than concern for individual sensitivities, will be the mainstay of the new policy.

“You’re trying to find a way to deal with the most extreme cases,” said Roger Howard, associate dean of students, at Wisconsin in an interview with The Chronicle, a publication that focuses on higher education.

“You’re also trying to send out a signal to faculty, students and staff about the kind of place we want to live in,” Howard said.

“I don’t think there should be any boundaries to what goes on in the classroom,” Amy Kasper, a student member of the committee that has been reviewing the school’s code, told The Chronicle.

“Are they saying I can’t stand up for myself? Am I being wrapped in a security blanket here, only to go out in the real world and find there isn’t one?” Kasper said.

The University of Maryland has one of the stricter policies among universities, listing unacceptable verbal behavior as “graphic sexual descriptions, sexual slurs, sexual innuendoes, comments about a person’s clothing or body, sexual teasing, suggestive or insulting sounds such as whistling, wolf-calls or kissing sounds.”

The code also includes “sexual looks such as leering and ogling with suggestive overtones, licking lips or teeth, holding or eating food provocatively, and lewd gestures” as unacceptable.

In their book, Kors and Silverglate argue that the regulation of speech has gone too far.

“If the American experiment in human liberty is to survive, citizens must work to keep alive the honest and unfettered pursuit of critical truth and the free exchange of ideas, values, and convictions; the alternative has a name,” Kors writes.


-Gayle Horwitz contributed to this report.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.