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Emanuel: Campus speech codes are capricious, harmful to all students

Story updated at 11:40 PM on Thursday, May 11, 2006

The American university as a "marketplace of ideas" is an extremely appealing concept. However, case after case of faculty stifling free speech - from a Northern Kentucky professor smashing a pro-life display to a New Jersey community college teacher threatening a freshman who invited an Iraq war veteran to speak - has all but destroyed the image of college as a place where young people can experience, and be free to express, truly diverse ideas and viewpoints.

Two Georgia Institute of Technology students are attempting to fight back. Senior Ruth Malhotra and junior Orit Sklar have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit challenging what they contend are "blatantly unconstitutional policies" at Tech, including targeted speech codes and discrimination against certain political and religious groups through selective allocation of mandatory student fees.

The lawsuit alleges Tech's student conduct code contains "guidelines that regulate the bounds of permissible speech and expression," controlling anything that could be considered an "act of intolerance" toward anybody's "race, religious belief, color, sexual/affectional orientation, national origin, disability, age, or gender."

The lawsuit argues that, at Tech, the difference between what constitutes free speech and what constitutes a speech code violation is determined selectively, and subjectively. Students speaking out in defense of traditional marriage, for example, or setting up a display in protest of the play "The Vagina Monologues," are supposedly engaging in intolerant hate speech.

A display protesting the play, comprising lines from the performance, was sponsored by Ruth Malhotra's student organization. A Tech administrator ordered that the display be covered up, and Malhotra was warned to refrain from engaging in such expression. On the other hand, the "Monologues" performance, sponsored in part by the school's Women's Resource Center, was endorsed as an example of the intellectual diversity valued by the university.

The lawsuit also contends Tech refuses to allocate mandatory student activity fees, which are supposed to fund student-run organizations, to certain religious and political groups. The fees are not supposed to be used for partisan political activities or religious activities, thus the Jewish organization Hillel, of which Sklar is president, receives no funding. But the campus Pride Alliance, considered by Tech to be a cultural organization rather than a religious or political group, was eligible to receive substantial funding to bring a homosexual priest to speak on campus, and to organize activities to oppose the 2004 Marriage Amendment.

The lawsuit argues the arbitrary classification of some religious and political groups as "cultural," and, therefore, eligible for student fees, violates the Constitution's establishment of religion clause in showing favoritism to certain religious and political groups by forcing students to fund them.

Media and campus activists portray the lawsuit as a fight against homosexual rights. Malhotra has received death threats from fellow students, and doctored photos on the Internet show her with a Nazi swastika on her forehead.

But those who are so viciously protesting this suit are overlooking the fact that the repeal of subjective speech codes and other intrusions will actually benefit all - including them - by protecting every organization from arbitrary punishment for their points of view, should the face of the university administration one day change to reflect views which are in opposition to theirs.

As Malhotra said recently, "All students and student groups, including, of course, gay student groups, should enjoy the full range of First Amendment freedoms." Should Malhotra prevail in the lawsuit, no rights will be stripped away from anyone. Rather, every student will once again be granted equal enforcement of their constitutional rights to free speech, and protection from government endorsement of religion.

If more students like Malhotra and Sklar would stand up for their constitutional rights and would protest selectively enforced speech codes and other intrusions on their rights, subjective speech restrictions might no longer be a part of campus life, and America's universities might once again be true "marketplaces of ideas."

Jeff Emanuel, a Special Operations military veteran, is a senior at the University of Georgia. He serves as public-relations director for the UGA College Republicans, the largest student political organization in the country.

Published in the Athens Banner-Herald on 051106

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At 10:17 PM, Blogger Buzz said...

I interviewed Ruth Malhotra, one of the plantiffs in this lawsuit back in May.


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