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Stanford OKs Ban on 'Fighting Words' : Education: Racial and sexual harassment is forbidden by new rules. But foes say the restrictions violate freedom of speech.


Stanford University, joining a national trend, has adopted new rules against racial and sexual harassment by students, officials announced Friday. However, as at other campuses, opponents contend that the regulations violate freedom of speech.

Adopted after more than a year of debate, the new measures forbid verbal, written or symbolic attacks--so-called "fighting words"--against individuals "on the basis of their sex, race, color, handicap, religion, sexual orientation or national or ethnic origin." Violators could face expulsion from school.

Stanford law professor Robert Rabin, chairman of a faculty-student group that approved the rules on an 8-3 vote Thursday night, said they were drawn very narrowly to strike a balance with free speech. General statements, "however distasteful," about ethnic groups would be allowed if not clearly directed at an individual, he said.

The University of Michigan adopted more sweeping restrictions last year after a series of racial incidents, including anti-black jokes being told on a campus radio show. But a federal judge, in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, declared those Michigan rules unconstitutional and too vague.

Michigan has since come up with revised rules, which the new Stanford measures resemble. The UC system and other schools also have added carefully worded policies against racism and sexism in the last year.

"There is no bright line that deals with every conceivable case in a manner that is crystal clear and acceptable to everyone, but I think this is the best accommodation we could come up with for those concerns," Rabin said Friday.

Mechanical engineering professor Tom Kane voted against the measure. "There is unanimity in the community that we are opposed to racism in all shapes and forms. There is also unanimity of the desirability of protecting freedom of speech," Kane said. The conduct rules "forced people to choose between these two desirable goals, and for me the choice came down on the side of valuing the freedom of expression more than the benefits that would come from restricting it."

The Stanford action was in response to two controversial incidents on campus in 1988. In both cases, the lack of clear rules on harassment made it difficult to mete out discipline, officials said.

In one incident, two white freshman drew stereotypical features of a black man onto a poster of Beethoven after a black student told them that the composer was thought to have some African ancestors. The white students were barred from campus housing for two quarters, a Stanford spokeswoman said.

In the other, a student was expelled from a Stanford dormitory after allegedly making anti-homosexual remarks to a gay counselor of the dorm. The situation escalated when the student's friends, wearing what minority students contended were Ku Klux Klan-like robes, held a late-night rally outside the dorm to support him.

Rabin cautioned that the rules will not ensure racial harmony. "Improving race relations on campus requires a lot of work by many people. It means creating a sense of trust through orientation programs, adjustments to the curriculum, confidence in the appointments process and a good admissions policy," he said. "I'm not saying we don't have those things but it's those fronts much more than some policy dealing with occasional acts of bigotry that are going to improve race relations."

Officials described the new rules as interpretations of Stanford's "Fundamental Standard" of conduct written by the university's first president, David Starr Jordan, in 1896. That code says: "Students at Stanford are expected to show both within and without the university such respect for order, morality, personal honor and the rights of others as is demanded of good citizens. Failure to observe this will be sufficient cause for removal from the university."

Stanford President Donald Kennedy has the power to veto the new rules, according to campus judicial affairs officer Sally Cole, who would investigate violations. However, Cole added, "I have no reason to believe he will."

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