The Disturbing Parallels Between University Speech Codes and Old South Demands to Limit Freedom of Speech

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Charles W. Nuckolls is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Alabama and David T. Beito is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Alabama. Both are members of the Liberty and Power Blog (www.libertyandpower.com) at the History News Network.

"In the South,” Faulkner said, “the past is not dead. It isn't even past." How true, especially when the segregationist legislation of the early 1950s reappears in the guise of protection against hate speech. Recently, the Faculty Senate of the University of Alabama passed a resolution calling for restrictions on speech that might be offensive to someone. The irony is that the new rules duplicate, almost word for word, laws passed by hysterical southern legislators in reaction to the Supreme Court’s Brown decision of 1954.

The resolution calls on University officials to “develop clear policies restricting any behavior which demeans or reduces an individual based on group affiliation or personal characteristics.” The pretext for passage was an incident involving alleged anti-gay comments by a comedian at an event sponsored by the University. Just why a university should pay professional comedians to entertain the students is another question.

But the resolution goes further. It covers “any approved University program or activity.” If taken literally, of course, the effect would be to punish football fans at Alabama games who shout slogans that “demean” or “diminish” players on the opposing team. Not a single member of the Faculty Senate voted against the proposed measure, although one fretted unconvincingly, “I think I know what is right and wrong but it’s all that stuff in the middle.”

If the members of the Alabama Faculty Senate thought this attempt to restrict free speech was original, they were wrong. In making their vote, they had cast their lot with a long and unsavory tradition in the Deep South. In 1956, for example, a bill debated by the Mississippi state legislature had remarkably similar wording to that approved by the Faculty Senate. It proposed making it a criminal offense to use “oral or printed” words “which tend to expose a person to hatred, contempt, or ridicule, to degrade or disgrace him in society.”

To be sure, the sponsors of the Mississippi and Alabama resolutions had different goals. Those in Mississippi were leading defenders of segregation including the governor and the Speaker of the House. Their resolution was part of a “package” of segregationist legislation intended to obstruct enforcement of the Brown decision and quash the civil rights movement. The sponsors of the Alabama resolution, by contrast, were primarily leftist faculty who pride themselves on their politically correct views.

Despite their differences, however, these two groups had more in common than each would probably like to admit. Both agreed that third parties should have the right to trump the free speech of individuals for a greater “public” purpose. Both proposed resolutions to create a vaguely defined category of prohibited speech that included the sweeping offense of “demeaning” or “degrading” others. Each of their proposals stipulated that the definition and enforcement of this restricted speech would be entrusted to third parties (university administrators, politicians or judges). The sponsors of the Alabama resolution, like their segregationist predecessors in Mississippi, showed a low regard for first amendment rights or appreciation for the free marketplace of ideas as a bulwark of American liberty.

In 1956, the Mississippi resolution sparked vigorous opposition both from local and national journalists. The Delta-Democrat Times, a relatively progressive paper on civil rights, characterized it as an assault on “our most cherished freedoms” while the prestigious Editor and Publisher regarded it as “totalitarian.” In the end, the opponents raised enough of an outcry to prevent the bill from becoming law.

Will the same hold true in Alabama? The best course for administrators at the University of Alabama in 2005 is to stand up for free speech and reject the resolution of the Faculty Senate. Unfortunately, recent history does not provide much reason for encouragement. During the past two years, for example, administrators successfully used the campus mail to deny long-standing mailing rights of faculty publications (including the state newsletter of the prestigious American Association of University Professors) and attempted to ban political window displays in student dorms.

We hope that our pessimism is misplaced. If University officials publicly go on record against the Faculty Senate’s campaign to restrict free speech at the University of Alabama, they will deserve all the praise they can get. And they will have avoided all-too-familiar tendency of Southern institutions to repeat their mistakes.

For a copy of the Faculty Senate's resolution and background on this controversy, click here.

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More Comments:

Charles W. Nuckolls - 2/8/2005

Quite so. But we were aiming for local effect in our original article. There are, to be sure, many instances of assault on civil liberties at American universities. Of the incident at Penn, the best one can say is that it led to the creation of FIRE, one of the most important organizations in the defense of individual freedom.

Charles W. Nuckolls - 2/8/2005

As an alumnus, you might consider writing to the University, to let them know how you feel. Administrators tend to pay attention, if and only if they see a financial threat looming. Of course anyone reading this is invited to write, as well. The more letters, the better. Please do consider joining the fihgt to protect our rapidly deteriorating civil liberties at the University of Alabama.

Michael Beatty - 2/7/2005

As an alumnus of The University of Alabama, and planning to go back for graduate studies in History in 2006, I have to say that this is particularly disconcerting news. The University has, unfortunately, long been fractured along ideological lines, most notably conservative/liberal, and it appears that this is just the latest outburst in that long-simmering polarization.

It's a shame that the most ardent advocates of "inclusiveness" and "diversity" are (apparently) the ones who are behind this effort to restrict freedom of speech. I hope it won't too seriously inhibit the University's ability to foster vigorous, MATURE debate based on divergent viewpoints.

Hugh High - 2/7/2005

I would have thought Nuckolls and Beito might have come up with a more up-to-date parallel for the recent actions of the U. Alabama than the suggestion that it mirrors laws passed in 1954 in 'the Old South'. Specifically, I would have thought Nuckolls and Beito would have been better served by reference to the more recent 'speech codes' of the U. of Pennsylvania and other similarly enlightened places, which I normally don't associate with the 'old south' -- but then, perhaps I need geography lessons.