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Don't Even Begin to Sacrifice Free Speech

THE First Amendment, the late Texas humorist and civil libertarian John Henry Faulk believed, ``will guarantee in perpetuity the right and protect the right of people to voice those opinions we loathe and despise, to protect them with the same force it does those we cherish and live by.'' Faulk's words should echo throughout United States colleges and universities, where intellectual freedom and the unimpeded exchange of ideas and opinions are absolutely essential. Sadly, however, this is not true at many schools.

In their understandable desire to discourage verbal harassment and cruelty, many schools have implemented broadly worded ``hate speech'' bans that severely limit on-campus freedom of expression and undermine the First Amendment.

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The University of Michigan, for example, in 1988 banned any form of expression ``that stigmatizes or victimizes an individual on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, greed, national origin, ancestry, age, marital status, handicap or Vietnam-era veteran status.''

Violators were subject to being reprimanded, ordered to perform community service, suspended or expelled.

In the 1989 case of Doe vs. University of Michigan, US District Judge Avern Cohn overturned the school's speech code. ``It is firmly settled that under our Constitution the public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers,'' he explained.

``These principles acquire a special significance in the university setting, where the free and unfettered interplay of competing views is essential.''

The Doe suit was made possible under the terms of existing federal civil rights measures that authorize students and professors at public colleges and universities to sue when their on-campus First Amendment rights are violated. Many more such cases will appear on federal court dockets as more speech codes are implemented and enforced.

But this same protection does not apply to private institutions of higher education. US Rep. Henry J. Hyde, (R) of Illinois, believes it should, as does the American Civil Liberties Union.

HYDE recently introduced the Collegiate Speech Protection Act of 1991, which will amend the US Civil Rights Act of 1964 to extend free-speech safeguards to private colleges and universities. The ACLU has endorsed this measure.

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The proposal says that these schools ``shall not make or enforce any rule subjecting any student to disciplinary sanctions solely on the basis of conduct that is speech or other communication protected from governmental restriction by the first article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States.''

Hyde's measure protects words, not actions. Disruptive conduct is not tolerated. ``This is not carte blanche for campus chaos,'' he says. Nor are obscenity, fighting words, and libel permitted.

But sacrificing legitimate freedom of expression must never be the price exacted to attend or teach at any school. Every form of speech the First Amendment protects on every street corner in the US must also be protected.

John Henry Faulk had to fight a six-year legal battle to reclaim his right to speak freely after McCarthy-era blacklisters libeled him by accusing him of being a Communist sympathizer, which cost him his job at WCBS, the Columbia Broadcasting System's flagship radio station in New York City.

He won that landmark libel suit three decades ago because, as he said, the First Amendment ``puts every American citizen, whatever color, whatever walk of life, on precisely the same footing.''

Even if they likewise have to go to court to prove that it does, Faulk's faith in the First Amendment must also encompass students and professors at private colleges and universities. By providing the legal authority for them to sue, Hyde's bill will ensure it does.

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