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Legal victory may be problem for Georgia Tech conservatives

In April, the Alliance Defense Fund filed a lawsuit against Georgia Tech on behalf of two conservative activist students, citing the school's "blatantly unconstitutional" targeted speech codes, its discrimination against political groups and particular religious groups through student activity fee allocation, and its evaluation and endorsement of certain religious views.

Last Monday, after nearly four months of legal wrangling, Georgia Tech agreed to change its speech code, removing provisions prohibiting students from attempting to "injure, harm" or "malign" a person because of "race, religious belief, color, sexual/affectational orientation, national origin, disability, age or gender."

David French, the ADF attorney representing the students, called the court order a "win for free speech," saying, "Tech students now won't have to enter a zone of censorship when they walk on campus," according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The media reaction, though predictably sarcastic, was not entirely inaccurate. The Journal-Constitution, in a story headlined "Insults allowed at Tech," said: "It might not be encouraged, but it is now officially OK to malign someone in a Georgia Tech dorm. And verbal assaults and derogatory signs? They're allowed, too."

While the school's speech codes were a poor use of administrative power, the downfall of those regulations was Tech's selective enforcement. While conservative students were disciplined for opposing any politically correct guideline, any assault by campus leftists on "traditional values" was ignored by the administration.

I agree wholeheartedly with free speech, as well as with a level playing field. However, I hope these young, idealistic college students know what they've set themselves up for with this success. The plaintiff with whom I have had the most contact endured a lot of abuse as a result of taking such a public stand against the Tech administration, and for her personal beliefs.

Interestingly, though she was a veteran of in-your-face activism, this plaintiff was amazed at the abuse she was taking, and had severe trouble dealing with it. While this reaction is not an entirely unexpected one, especially from a young person, this plaintiff did at the time have the fallback reassurance the abuse she was taking was, ultimately, in the name of improving the climate of free speech for all Tech students.

Now that reassurance is gone.

The playing field is level, and anything the opposition wishes to say is completely legal. It may not be a win for decency, but decency in personal speech and opinion is probably not the best subject for governmental interference; likewise, regulation "promoting diversity and tolerance," which these speech codes purported to be, is in no way an administrative function at a taxpayer-funded institution.

In this case of speech code revocation, though, the blade cuts both ways. While the agreement reached in the lawsuit means Tech's College Republicans and other campus groups can now freely protest against gay marriage, militant feminism and countless other perceived offenses, it also means protesters will be fair game for any resulting blowback - which may well come in the form of vicious, personal, and now absolutely legal retribution.

As a result, for those who were involved in this action in the belief it would lead to a more tolerant - and tolerated - existence for campus conservatives, a Pandora's box of now-legal abuse and protest may well have been opened.

Ironically, the parts of the student speech code which were removed were just those sections which, with even-handed application, would have protected this plaintiff against the figurative assault she received for filing the suit in the first place. The flyers posted in the halls decrying not only her, but her Asian heritage; the student marches against the lawsuit at which racial epithets were used; the Photoshopping of her face on Internet blogs to put swastikas on her forehead - all quite possibly, if not definitely, breached the line of "injuring, harming" or "maligning" a person because of "race, religious belief, color, sexual/affectational orientation, national origin, disability, age or gender."

The problem isn't the action. The problem isn't the loosening of one-sided restrictions on free speech. The potential problem is that now the gloves are effectively off on both sides; no longer can the conservative activists point to discrimination on the part of the administration as the reason for their troubles, and no longer will they have the reassurance the abuse they're taking is worth it in their fight for a "greater good."

The air may be clearer and the sun brighter today for conservative activists at Georgia Tech. But there's a valid question as to whether these student activists will be able to withstand the repercussions of what they've achieved.

As the saying goes, "Be careful what you ask for -- you just might get it."

Jeff Emanuel, a Special Operations military veteran who served in Iraq, is a columnist and a director of leading conservative weblog

Published in the Athens Banner-Herald on 082406

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