News & Politics

Speech Therapy


Amy Kasper is Korean, but her parents are white, like just about everyone else in Hurley, Wisconsin, pop. 1762. Hurley is well-meaning folk, Kasper’s quick to point out, but not so tolerant of difference. “Growing up, I was called every racist name for Asian in the book.”

All this made Kasper an unlikely champion in the fight to abolish the University of Wisconsin at Madison’s long-standing faculty speech code, the latest skirmish in the culture war that continues to engulf academia. After two years of battling those who would presume to protect her, Kasper regained the right to be offended: Last month, to the shock of interested parties both national and local, this outpost of progressive politics amid the dells and dairy farms all but repealed one of the founding documents of the so-called political correctness movement.

Welcome to the post-modern-day campus, the hurly-burly melting pot where traditional ideological allies part ways and identity politics as usual seems to be falling apart at the seams. “I’d rather people have the right to call me a faggot so at least I can determine my friends from my enemies,” says Jason Shepard, the openly gay UW senior class president and another central figure in the opposition to the speech codes. Shepard also grew up in rural Wisconsin and like Kasper has endured the withering, demoralizing epithets speech codes are meant to discourage; yet both embrace the intoxicating if problematic notion that the best weapon against bigotry is the open marketplace of ideas.

They are representative of a groundswell that is gradually building up steam and defying the conservative mythology of the university as the precinct of the PC Police. In isolated incidents across the country, students, legislators and professors have begun agitating against First Amendment restrictions in academe. From the UNLV to Cornell, institutions are beginning to review their speech codes (which exist, in one form or another, at an estimated 200 universities). Within the past year bills were introduced in Michigan, Ohio, and Maine that would prohibit any restrictions whatsoever on speech at public institutions. Ironically, as UW-Madison was once viewed as prescient in its adoption of speech codes, it is now being viewed as prescient in its rejection of them.

Ostensibly, the UW-Madison decision—
enacted by the faculty senate by a vote of 71 to 62— marks a triumph for free speech. The previous code, which placed the burden of proof on the accused and ignored the intent of the offending speaker, was by any account overly broad and constitutionally specious—
essentially prohibiting anything that could be construed as offensive speech. The new code, in contrast, waxes eloquent on the virtues of academic freedom and protects all expression “germane to the instructional setting.”

Nowhere is the conflict-cum-conundrum of interests implicit in the speech code debate more evident than at that University of Wisconsin, with its highly reputed commitments to the often opposing concerns of academic freedom and social justice. Speech codes were explicitly set up to serve social justice, and the University of Wisconsin was one of the first schools to institute them. The faculty code was adopted in 1981, and the student code in 1989, under the aegis of Donna Shalala while she was chancellor there. Madison is rightfully
perceived— with loathing or admiration— as a paragon of political correctness.

But in 1991, a federal district court knocked down the student code, calling it unconstitutional. Plans to rewrite the code were scuttled a few years later. The faculty code remained untouched by the legal decision, however, making it all the more surprising when, eight years later, the university knocked it down on its own. There is, after all, a fundamental difference between judicial intervention and voluntary action. For UW-Madison to willingly rescind a restriction on hate speech is akin to the Citadel announcing a plan to open a center devoted to queer studies.

“We’ve gone through the era of codes, and now we’re ready to move on. We’re entering a new moment,” says Donald Downs, a UW-Madison political science professor. He points out that the university is obligated to respect another tradition as well as that of social justice: academic freedom.

In the early ’90s Downs began following how the faculty speech code was being put to use. Though no faculty member was ever formally disciplined under the policy, several professors were quietly investigated for alleged violations. In one case, a 74-year-old professor was pulled from the classroom midlecture and questioned under the watchful gaze of two armed guards. Downs and others perceived the code as prohibitive of a free flow of ideas in the classroom. “The purpose of the code was subverted. Instead of making us more open-
minded about race, it made us paranoid.”

In fact, no one understood the degree to which sentiment was building against the code, until the subject was brought to the floor of the faculty senate by an ad-hoc committee composed of faculty, staff, and three students— including Kaspar and Shepard. “Professor after professor came down, and everyone who spoke was against the code,” Downs says. “People were passionate about it, like it’d just been bottled up for so long.” Within three months the senate had adopted the new, largely declawed code. Free speech, it would seem, had carried the day.

But civil libertarians weren’t the only ones to celebrate the decision. Indeed, it’s difficult to find anyone who wasn’t on the bandwagon the whole time, even those you’d least expect to be there. “The Anti-Defamation League is firmly opposed to campus hate speech codes,” says the ADL’s Elizabeth Coleman. “We really believe that light is the best disinfectant.”

“Speech codes are a fig leaf,” agrees ACLU president Nadine Strossen. “They allow university administrations to avoid doing anything substantive to address minority issues on campus.”

Yet the celebration party’s less fun when your putative enemies are sharing in the festivities. As UW-Madison had once been hailed as a model of political correctness, so now it is being hailed by conservatives as leading the backlash against it. The Faculty Committee for Academic Freedom, for instance, an organization founded by Downs, accepted a $100,000 contribution from the conservative Bradley Foundation. It’s an irony that does not escape Jason Shepard. “It did make me uncomfortable to look to my left and right and see people who would give comfort to the killers of Matthew Shepard,” he says. Still, he doesn’t see the issue as driven by a “backlash” momentum, but by a healthy respect for the Bill of Rights. “Maybe it’s just time for us liberals to look at pushing our agenda in a way that doesn’t involve squelching ideas we find offensive.”

Research assistance: Lou Bardel

Most Popular