Free Speech Even for Racists

Eugene Volokh of UCLA Law School spoke up quickly on the expelling of  University of Oklahoma students for  their racist chants—it was an impermissible violation of free speech rights. On his blog, The Volokh Conspiracy, he wrote: “[R]acist speech is constitutionally protected, just as is expression of other contemptible ideas; and universities may not discipline students based on their speech. That has been the unanimous view of courts that have considered campus speech codes and other campus speech restrictions.”

The campus, of course, has become one of the most censorship-prone segments of American society. Speeches are routinely canceled. Unconstitutional speech codes re-appear as harassment guidelines or rules guarding against a hostile environment. Hurting the feelings of someone in a protected group is grounds for punishing speech as harassment. Marquette University, one of the worst offenders, defines harassment as “verbal, written or physical conduct directed at a person or a group based on color, race, national origin, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation where the offensive behavior is intimidating, hostile or demeaning, or which could or does result in mental, emotional or physical discomfort, embarrassment, ridicule or harm.”

“Embarrassment” and “emotional discomfort”? Samantha Harris of FIRE writes: “How on earth are students expected to discuss anything remotely controversial when they can be charged with harassment for causing another person’s ‘emotional discomfort’? Almost any discussion of a difficult or sensitive issue inevitably causes someone some discomfort.”

In effect, the campuses are imposing a policy of mandatory niceness to protect certain groups, and in the process encouraging hypersensitivity and tolerance for censorship.


  • John Leo

    John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

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