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EDITORIALS: THE SATURDAY PAGE | CAMPUS INTELLIGENCE

A war over words

April 15, 2006

THE SUPPOSED "WAR ON CHRISTMAS," like the holiday season itself, won't start for another few months. Meanwhile, and just in time for Easter, Christian activists have a new battle: the war on Christian students. But this war is being waged in courtrooms instead of on right-wing radio, and what's really being defended is the right to free speech.

As Times reporter Stephanie Simon reported this week, the Christian Legal Society and other groups are going to court to challenge campus conduct codes designed to protect students from verbal or physical abuse on the basis of race, gender, religion and (what's at stake here) sexual orientation. The allegation is that, out of misplaced political correctness, universities are cramping the 1st Amendment rights of students who feel compelled by their faith to denounce homosexuality.

It is true that speech codes can be interpreted so broadly as to infringe on free speech. Supporters of such codes say they were designed to deal with cross burnings, racial epithets and other "fighting words" that are not protected by the 1st Amendment because they are closer to conduct than speech. In practice, however, the codes also were invoked against the expressions of opinion -- even in the classroom -- about topics such as the permanence of sexual orientation or the relative contribution of men and women to art and science. "Hate speech" took on an increasingly elastic definition.

Eventually, the courts stepped in. In the 1980s and '90s, federal judges ruled that speech codes at the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin were too broad. In 2001, in an opinion by future Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., a federal court in Philadelphia reached the same conclusion about a Pennsylvania public school district policy. That code prohibited "any unwelcome verbal, written or physical conduct which offends, denigrates or belittles an individual" because of "race, religion, color, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or other personal characteristics."

In the opinion, Alito offered a warning to those who would define "harassment" or "hate speech" too broadly, noting that "the free speech clause protects a wide variety of speech that listeners may consider deeply offensive, including statements that impugn another's race or national origin or that denigrate religious beliefs."

It isn't necessary -- or even desirable -- to protect gay students, Christian students or any other types of students from opinions they find hurtful. Indeed, the civil exchange of competing views is part of the purpose of higher education. Colleges have the right to protect students from harassment, but they must be careful not to trample on the 1st Amendment rights of other students.

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