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fighting words : it seemed like a noble idea--regulating hateful language. but when the university of wisconsin tried, its good intentions collided with the first amendment.

March 28, 1993|barry siegel | Barry Siegel, a Times national correspondent, is the author of "A Death in White Bear Lake" and "Shades of Gray," both published by Bantam Books. His last story for this magazine was about discredited murder convictions following a young girl's death

Ever since his days as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Roger Howard has been combatting efforts at censorship and control. Fresh from a stint in the Peace Corps, bitterly angry over American involvement in Vietnam, committed to the civil rights battle, Howard spent a lot of time in the late 1960s bailing anti-war demonstrators out of jail and fighting for the right of Black Panthers to speak on campus. Later, when he went to work as associate dean of students on the Madison campus, he came to recognize and recoil from a certain type of alarmed phone call, from people all across the political spectrum. Whether it was the screening of X-rated films or "The Birth of a Nation," militant speeches by black Muslim cleric Louis Farrakhan or the late rabbi Meir Kahane, someone was always urging restraints. Over the past two decades, the pressure on Howard has been disagreeably constant from people who feel insulted or injured.

* So, when the call first rose in 1988 for restrictions on racially harassing speech at the University of Wisconsin, the 51-year-old associate dean was appalled. The news media and general public were describing this latest notion as a "hate-speech code," while supporters were insisting it was an "anti-harassment code." The issue remained the same, though, whatever the label. Even to consider the notion of regulating speech was anathema to Howard.

* Then he began listening to the stories minority students were telling. The harassment they described was more subtle than flagrant. One student called it a "drumbeat" of comments--in the hallway, in the library, in the locker room, in the dorms. The more the students talked, the more their situation sounded different to Howard. This was intimidation--a purposeful, repeated effort to drive away minorities. Clearly, Howard concluded, this was an unreported tragedy.

* But what to do? Verbal harassment couldn't be dealt with under existing UW codes. Nor, Howard realized, could students handle it by walking away. They'd just end up losing access to the lab or library.

* At universities with increasingly diverse populations, how to establish a civil atmosphere? Is it possible to outlaw hate? Is setting rules part of what you do?

Yes, Howard eventually decided. Yes, you set rules.

In fact, by the time a public hearing convened on the Madison campus in June, 1989, to consider a proposed hate-speech code, Howard had so embraced the idea that he testified in its favor. And three months later, when the code took effect on UW campuses, he became the primary person responsible for implementing it at Madison.

So began, for Howard and the University of Wisconsin, a pioneering exploration into the character of the First Amendment--and of the UW community. What this exploration eventually yielded was an education. For some, it involved a revelation about human instincts, for others a confirmation. But for just about everyone, it involved a disappointment.

As speech-code complaints started rolling in, Howard soon saw that people wanted the code to be much more inclusive than it actually was. People were perfectly willing to restrict speech when it served their agendas. Howard was aghast. This was the same impulse that had been alarming him since the late '60s--only now it was coming from within the university community. By the time he'd fielded speech code complaints for two years, Howard once again was firmly opposed to the notion of regulating what people said.

The UW Board of Regents changed its mind as well. After debating, drafting and adopting one speech code, then debating, drafting and adopting another when a federal judge rejected the first version, the regents late last year decided to junk the whole deal. On Dec. 11, they officially voted to repeal what is formally known as UWS 17.06(2). The University of Wisconsin, among the first of an estimated 200 U.S. universities to adopt a hate-speech code, was among the first to rescind one.

The end did not come easily. There were objections and policy statements and last-minute resuscitations. On the Madison campus, with its uniquely progressive history and a chancellor--Donna Shalala, now secretary of Health and Human Services--often called the "high priestess of political correctness," there were fiery tugs of war between the PC activists and the First Amendment absolutists. Throughout the UW system there were abundant flashes of rhetoric, posturing and self-promotion. And there were the usual dilemmas.

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