In the early stages of the debate at Stanford University on whether that university should join an increasing number of other campuses in punishing students for racist, sexist and other forms of offensive speech, Stanford's president, Donald Kennedy, refused to join the righteous censors.

Once speech is restricted, he said, inevitably censorship -- and self-censorship -- of ideas will follow.

But Donald Kennedy has now joined the speech police by approving a new policy that is intended to protect victims of "discriminatory harassment." Henceforth, a Stanford student is forbidden to use "speech or other expression" that is "intended to {directly} insult or stigmatize an individual or a small number of individuals on the basis of their sex, race, color, handicap, religion, sexual orientation or national and ethnic origin."

The drafters of the code insist that it is a very narrow incursion on free speech because the only words that can get a student in trouble are "fighting words" -- words that by their "very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite to an immediate breach of the peace."

This once distinguished university is now in the business of sifting and weighing the utterances of its students to determine the worthiness of their speech -- and to decide which are "fighting words" and which are not. It is for this, and many other reasons, that Benno Schmidt, president of Yale, will have nothing to do with such absurd and destructive exercises.

By contrast with Yale, Stanford has greatly diminished itself. In a faculty debate on the future credibility of Stanford as a place of free inquiry, one of the dissenters was Gerald Gunther, arguably the nation's leading constitutional scholar.

This university, said Gunther, "will be on record as adopting an anti-speech regulation -- a hideous precedent for a university that boasts of the winds of freedoms and claims to be bound {though a private institution} by the principles of the First Amendment."

The once vigorous currents of freedom at Stanford were also included in the losing argument of a professor of mechanical engineering, Tom Kane. He noted that the new proposal "is simply instituting censorship at Stanford. Like other winds, the winds of freedom sometimes blow too hard for comfort. Nevertheless, I urge you to continue to let them blow at Stanford."

One of the leading supporters of the policy of expelling bad speech from the university is law professor Robert Rabin, chairman (Is it sexist not to say chair?) of the Student Conduct Legislative Council. During a debate in the Faculty Senate, Professor Michael Bratman offered a hypothetical: in an angry exchange with a white student, a black student calls him a "honky SOB." I assume, said Bratman, that language would be prohibited.

"No," said Professor Rabin. The proposed speech standard takes the position, Rabin explained, that the white majority, as a whole, is not in as much need of protection from discriminatory harassing speech as are those who have suffered discrimination.

"Calling a white a 'honky,' " Rabin said," is not the same as calling a black a 'nigger.' "

Inadvertently, but valuably, professor Rabin has illustrated the slipperiness of codes that measure and punish speech. Here is a Stanford University law professor airily approving a new sliding scale of permissible expression. The severity of a student's punishment depends on the color of the person, or small numbers of persons, he allegedly insulted.

What about an insult to someone's religion, which is also in the code? Jews have been discriminated against more and longer than many other religious groups. Do they get special leniency when they insult members of other religions?

As for ethnicity, what about Native Americans? In view of their history under white rule, shouldn't they be more protected from bad speech than blacks? And there is a strong feeling among many Italian-Americans that they have historically been the target of deep-rooted discrimination -- and they say they still have to suffer viciously wounding epithets. Will a Stanford student suffer greater punishment for insulting an Italian-American in contrast to saying awful things to a Presbyterian?

In its mindless ardor to show that it really cares about what happens to minorities within its gates, Stanford has turned foolish and has forgotten why it and other colleges exist. Suppression of speech is not the reason, or it didn't used to be.

To the further embarrassment of Stanford, this policy of restricting speech on campus, as Professor Kane notes, "trivializes" the issue of racism. And it patronizes those whom Stanford would protect.