Private-school pansies

By Thomas Jipping

When it comes to censorship, private schools are a bunch of pansies. After all, they have a right to censor. Public schools also suppress speech, but they do it the old fashioned way. They violate the Constitution.

Something called the “Committee on Healthy Diversity” at Harvard Law School is drafting a policy to ban what someone considers to be harassing or offensive speech. Wimps! I attended law school at the State University of New York at Buffalo in the 1980s. The Constitution, with its annoying First Amendment speech protection, does not apply to private Harvard but it is said to apply to state universities. Back in October 1987, the Buffalo law faculty adopted an anti-speech code, calling it (no joke) a statement on “intellectual freedom, tolerance and prohibited harassment.” In the censorship game, Harvard is way behind the curve.

Harvard’s drafting committee includes six faculty, six students and three staff members. What’s with the egalitarian stuff? Buffalo’s policy was drafted by (no joke) my First Amendment professor.

Like the Boston Globe, you might have thought a censorship code to be a “highly unusual step for a law school.” Or any institution of higher education, for that matter. Well, you must not get out much. Someone did say once that he would defend to the death your right to say even things he disagrees with. That was then. Today, in the words of Buffalo’s censorship policy, a law student’s freedom of speech is limited by “the responsibility to promote equality and justice.”

Those Harvard lightweights held a town meeting to debate whether to suppress debate. A few faculty members, and even the dean, were “deeply uneasy” about banning undesirable speech. Please! The Buffalo faculty unanimously enacted its censorship policy behind closed doors. I heard about it only when the law school newspaper editorialized that the policy needed a tougher enforcement mechanism. (I first assumed it was the paper’s annual spoof issue. It wasn’t.)

At Harvard’s town meeting, Professor Alan Dershowitz criticized “extraordinarily abstract” censorship proposals that amount to “asking someone to first vote for censorship, and then figure out later what is censored.” Is he a civil libertarian or something? The Buffalo policy banned “any remark based on prejudice or group stereotype.” The only guidance was the extraordinarily abstract reference to some “responsibility to promote equality and justice.”

According to the Associated Press, this censorship proposal has sparked an “intense internal debate” at Harvard. Debate and dialogue are really overrated. Columnist Nat Hentoff wrote about my fight against the Buffalo censorship policy in the April 9, 1988, Washington Post. “I have not been able to find any liberal students,” he wrote, “who found the faculty statement at variance with the First Amendment. Indeed, the [National Lawyers] guild supported it, as did the Student Bar Association. At Buffalo, it was members of the Federalist Society who rallied round James Madison. … Students tell me that except for one professor, none of this has been discussed in the classrooms.”

A Harvard spokesman was unclear whether the code would apply outside, as well as inside, the classroom. Amateurs! The Buffalo policy banned undesirable speech “wherever and however it occurred.” They even hauled a law student before the dean after a remark during an intramural basketball game.

These private-school weaklings have a lot to learn about censorship.