Speech Lessons


Free speech is the typical capricious American’s cause: We’re all for it until someone offends us. Conservatives tout it hotly, until an artiste flings dung at the Virgin Mary or an anarchiste torches Old Glory. Liberals espouse it piously until an arriviste (Dr. Laura) shrews off about gays and “biological mistakes.” It’s the great Constitutional jest: We all enjoy it so long as the joke isn’t on us.

Naturally, free speech has often been a firecracker on campus. Conservatives have been grousing nonstop about political correctness for a decade. Interestingly enough, at this year’s Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, a sliver of campus politics poked its way into the GOP’s platform.

“At many institutions of higher learning,” the platform intones, “the ideal of academic freedom is threatened by intolerance. Students should not be compelled to support, through mandatory student fees, anyone’s political agenda.”

Buried in that GOP paragraph is a reference to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that may change forever the way abuses of academic freedom are litigated. In Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth, Scott Southworth, a conservative, evangelical law student at UW-Madison, filed suit against his school, charging that his First Amendment rights had been violated because his mandatory student fees were being used to fund organizations and activities of which he disapproved. These included a gay and lesbian film festival and an abortion rights program sponsored by the Campus Women’s Center. In a unanimous decision handed down in March of this year, the Court ruled in favor of the University of Wisconsin, decreeing that public universities have a right to collect student activity fees. The essence of the ruling was the justices’ assertion that universities are places designed to foster debate and to expose students to a spectrum of ideas. To do this, they may collect student fees. But here’s the kicker—the Court stipulated they must allocate those funds fairly among groups, without regard to their views.

Now, the wording of the GOP platform leaves it unclear whether or not Republicans agreed with the Court’s decision. Do Republicans think students should refuse altogether to pay activity fees, or do they think students should pay such dues only if they will be fairly distributed among left- and right-wing groups? The former is more likely. Remember last year when Mayor Giuliani tried to revoke public funding for the Brooklyn Museum of Art because one of its exhibits included a picture of the Virgin Mary encrusted with elephant dung? In the same vein, the GOP would probably rather jettison student activity funds than see them used by proselytizing queers and feminists.

If that’s the correct interpretation of the GOP platform’s wording (and no one’s giving an official one), then, of course, conservatives aren’t really for academic freedom at all—they’re just miffed because they’re the underdog. But then again, liberals aren’t really for academic freedom either. The only reason lefties aren’t bellyaching about students funds too is because they’re the decision-making majority on most campuses, and therefore the primary beneficiary of student funds. Until now, they’ve also had the power to shut out conservative groups.

Luckily, though, the Southworth decision, which was a sound and auspicious defense of the First Amendment, will force both liberals and conservatives on campus to play fair or face the consequences in court. Harvey Silverglate, a self-described libertarian liberal, who is coauthor with Alan Charles Kors of The Shadow University, an exposé of First Amendment abuses on campus, gives a succinct interpretation of the case’s import.

“In light of the Southworth opinion,” Silverglate says, “the academic world has a message that nine out of nine Supreme Court justices believe that content neutrality is absolutely essential in order to maintain the Constitutionality of these programs. That will give them a very strong incentive to redouble their efforts to make sure that these fees bring truly ideologically diverse speakers to campus. You can bet that the next suit is going to spring from the platform built by Southworth.”

That means the neo-Nazi cabal, the fundamentalist Christian consortium, the bisexual Bacchae, and everyone in between can sue the pants off their schools if they’re denied their fair share. Is free speech going legit?

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