Free Speech at GaTech

I don’t know if you’ve been following the story surrounding GaTech’s speech code, but yesterday GaTech aggreed to alter its speech code in response to an ongoing lawsuit.

In response to an ongoing lawsuit filed by two conservative student leaders, Georgia Tech this week agreed to change portions of a speech policy for students living in on-campus housing that lawyers have alleged is vague and unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge J. Owen Forrester ordered Tech Monday to abide by an agreement to change the code. Tech took out wording that prohibits students from any attempt to “injure, harm” or “malign” a person because of “race, religious belief, color, sexual/affectational orientation, national origin, disability, age or gender.”

David French, a lawyer for the Christian-based Alliance Defense Fund representing the students who brought the suit, called the court order a “win for free speech.”

“Tech students now won’t have to enter a zone of censorship when they walk on campus,” he said. “They now have the same rights as every Georgian.”

The order puts the speech code under judicial supervision, meaning Tech would have to go to Forrester if it wants to change it in the next five years.

The speech code issue was just one of a list of complaints brought by Tech students Ruth Malhotra and Orit Sklar, who have said Tech’s policies aimed at protecting students from intolerance end up, instead, discriminating against conservative students who speak out against homosexuality and feminism and other issues.

Today’s @issue section of the AJC included two editorials on the issue. One of them was by the two students who filed the suit, clearing some things up:

The purpose of the lawsuit has been seriously distorted in the media and on campus. The suit was filed to hold Tech accountable for selective enforcement of its speech codes. This resulted in mainstream conservative speech being banned as “hate speech.” Politically charged, far-out-of-the-mainstream leftist speech was considered part of the “intellectual diversity” purportedly valued by Tech.

The other was by the chair of the School of Modern Languages, Prof. Phil McKnight:

A contemporary German intellectual, Lothar Beier, writing on the controversial and sensitive issues of the French radical right, racism, guest workers, and immigration and integration in Europe, points out that tolerance is the privilege of those in power, and the favor of tolerance can easily and arbitrarily be revoked.
U.S. District Judge J. Owen Forrester has effectively demonstrated this observation by retracting the Georgia Tech rules of tolerance, which are similar to those prevalent at most U.S. universities. For the time being, it would now appear to be perfectly OK for members of the Georgia Tech community to engage in unrestricted attempts to “injure, harm, malign or harass a person because of race, religious belief, color, sexual/affectional orientation,” to use the words now banned from the Georgia Tech guidelines for the behavior of members of the university community toward each other.

Prof. McKnight needs to actually read the ruling and the changes to the speech code that he is discussing. The change makes it clear that “Any attempt to harass or physically injure or harm a person” are not allowed. This pretty much covers everything.

More on GaTech’s (now old) speech code can be found at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) website. The new changes to the speech code can be read about here.

The students, in particular, were upset over being limited in their protesting of the Vagina Monologues and having their Affirmative Action Bake Sale shut down. Agree with them or not on the issues, but protesting the Vagina Monologues and running a bake sale attempting to be critical of Affirmative Action in a creative way seems like the exact sort of thing that should fall withn the realm of free speech, even if you are offended by the idea. Shocking people with different tactics are age-old in America.

The thing is that the students are right in challenging the speech code. Free speech ought not to be a zonable commodity (at least, not to those who are of voting age). Prof. McKnight’s argument is a decent one into how people ought not to act and speak – that is, they ought to be tolerant of other people – but mandating that tolerance goes counter to the entire idea of free speech. Freedom of speech means nothing if it doesn’t include the right to say or demonstrate (once proper permits are obtained) to even the most outrageous and despicable ideas. Prof. McKnight writes “I can’t help but wonder if this means it is now acceptable for students, depending on where they stand, to refer to one another in public and in the dorms with racial and secual slurs.” Acceptable? No, probably not. Legal? Yes, of course. And it must be so. GaTech is public property and when you are in dorms or “in public” you are in the public sphere where free speech reigns. Something being offensive to you is no reason to ban it. Men wearing “wife-beaters” or running without their shirts on is offensive to some. Women wearing pants or skirts above their knees is offensive to some. Wearing shirts with swear words on them is offensive to some. Should this be outlawed as well? Tolerance is a useful quality to society and it is something that ought to be strived for. But not mandated by governance or statute. Not at the expense of free speech.

11 Comments so far

  1. Jules (unregistered) on August 18th, 2006 @ 10:27 am

    Speaking out against homosexuality and feminism IS INTOLERANCE. What part of this is considered just exercising one’s free speech? The same would apply to racism or religious intolerance as well. Tech students already have a bad enough reputation and this will just encourage that sort of behaviour.

  2. George Burdell (unregistered) on August 18th, 2006 @ 10:43 am

    You are missing the point Jules – tolerance is not enforcable by law, and a person has every right ot be intolerant of anything they want. Free speech is not limited to things which are unoffensive and tolerant.

    “Tech students already have a bad enough reputation” – I don’t know where you came up with this, but it is also really incorrect.

  3. J (unregistered) on August 18th, 2006 @ 10:57 am

    Ummm…since when is “tolerance” mandated by law? The Constitution gives me the right to say almost anything (short of threatening violence), whether it is vile or not. There is nothing, I repeat, NOTHING, that protects anyone from being offended. The idea that “tolerance” (which is actually anything but) should be required is a farce. How about the homosexuals becoming tolerant of my right to peacefully disagree with their lifestyle without be calling a bigot or hateful? I have never protested publicly against them, but expressing my viewpoint, which is based in my religious beliefs, would earn me a branding of intolerant. In truth, THEY are the hateful ones.

  4. INTERESTING (unregistered) on August 18th, 2006 @ 11:18 am

    Would those in support of this change also support the founding of a Tech “Negroes go home” club?

    Since there’d be no policy against it- I guess it is OK.

    Funny how supporters of things like this also run out anti-war or anti-establishment profs. I thought the idea of college was a place where people from different backgrounds come together and discuss ideas; this doesn’t create an environment to do that safely when you have essentially sanctioned groups of students damning others to hell.

  5. Daniel (unregistered) on August 18th, 2006 @ 11:23 am

    Anonymous “Interesting” commenter: Supporting free speech and all that comes with it doesn’t mean that you actively have to support the message. Just their right to say the message in a peaceful manner.

    I can’t speak for other people, but I wouldn’t support such a club. However, I do in general support the right of people to speak about their ideas in an open manner. Yes, open discussion of ideas is part of the educational process in college. This includes ideas that you disagree with, whether they come from liberal or conservative, establishment or anti-establishment, war or anti-war, or whatever other dichotomies you can come up with.

  6. gtBB (unregistered) on August 18th, 2006 @ 11:50 am

    I’m curious: what exactly were the students protesting against in their demonstration against the Vagina Monologues? I can’t seem to find any information via google…

  7. abby (unregistered) on August 18th, 2006 @ 1:42 pm

    “The play is extremely controversial and radically leftist, so part of our protest involved quoting some of the more absurd lines from the play. Administration officials demanded that College Republicans take down the display because according to them it was insulting and offensive, and when we refused to do so they eventually made us cover up certain parts of the display. The Dean of Student Involvement then sternly reprimanded me for the protest and ordered me to refrain from engaging in “shock value” in future activities.”

    Personally, I don’t fully agree with either extreme, but think it’s great that they are free to disagree, however silly or unpleasant it may be.

    “I thought the idea of college was a place where people from different backgrounds come together and discuss ideas; this doesn’t create an environment to do that safely when you have essentially sanctioned groups of students damning others to hell.” So. . . you want them to meet and discuss ideas. . . just not the ones that don’t sit well with everyone.

  8. meh (unregistered) on August 19th, 2006 @ 11:18 am

    just put the protesters in a free speech zone down the street, around the corner, and behind a barricade and everyone will be happy.

  9. Andisheh Nouraee (unregistered) on August 19th, 2006 @ 3:18 pm

    When so-called conservative students have “ain’t we clever” bake sales, the correct response is not “shut up, you’re banned.” The correct response is to either engage them in debate, or, if you’re in a hurry, point and laugh. Shun them. Quit inviting them to your parties. Don’t let them merge in front of you on the interstate. But don’t try to tell them that the 1st Amendment doesn’t apply to their stupid ideas.

    One cannot be a liberal or a progressive in any sense if you deny people the right to gather, speak and/or offend you on public property.

    The Vagina Monologues doesn’t need GA TECH administrators to protect it from nitwit protestors. It does however, need the fans and protestors alike to agree on the principal that state institutions respect free speech.

    As long “the rules” protect people from harassment or incitement to violence, we will survive. We’re all better off for having to navigate thoughts, words and ideas that we may despise.

    There is no constitutional protection against being really, really annoyed.

  10. Nobody (unregistered) on August 19th, 2006 @ 7:37 pm

    I believe the question here is to determine what constitutes harrassment. It seems to me that this was one community harassing individuals in another community. It seems clear to me that the College Republicans “create[d] an unpleasant or hostile situation for especially by uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical conduct.”( As such, they should have been arrested. And there should have been one count of harassment for every individual who was made unpleasant by this situation. There is a deeper and more pertinent story here about a letter that was harassing and directed at individuals, many of whom I know personally. Do your research, people!

  11. shelbinator (unregistered) on August 21st, 2006 @ 6:50 pm

    As much as I wouldn’t ever want to spend more than five minutes with Malhotra and her pals, I supported her right to spew idiotic and loathesome things. I just wonder if she thinks it’s cool for me to shout from the campanile that the nice thing about fat chicks is at least they’ve got big knockers — at least if the GACR ’06 convention is any indication.

    Or did I just cross that arbitrary line into her assment? D’oh.

Terms of use | Privacy Policy | Content: Creative Commons | Site and Design © 2009 | Metroblogging ® and Metblogs ® are registered trademarks of Bode Media, Inc.