In recent years, few national board meetings of the American Civil Liberties Union have been anticipated with more apprehension among the affiliates and the membership than the gathering in New York earlier this month.
For months, the ACLU has been sharply divided on whether it should endorse the punishment on college campuses of racist, sexist and other offensive speech. More and more colleges have such codes. The Michigan ACLU affiliate successfully went to court to overturn the University of Michigan's code, and the Wisconsin affiliate is in court battling the imposition of speech police on the University of Wisconsin campus.
On the other hand, all three California affiliates -- representing 25 percent of the national membership -- have adopted their own model speech code for colleges, which is so overbroad and vague as to punish a student whose speech "creates a hostile and intimidating environment which the speaker knows or reasonably should know will seriously and directly impede the educational opportunities of the individual or individuals to whom it is directly addressed."
The First Amendment Committee of the Southern California ACLU unanimously voted against this evisceration of the First Amendment, but the committee was overruled by the Southern California board of directors.
At the October national board meeting, however, the results were quite different. The believers in the First Amendment for all seasons seized the initiative as the debate began. Gwen Thomas, for instance, a black college administrator in Colorado who is running for president of the ACLU, said with her customary lack of equivocation:
"I have always felt as a minority person that we have to protect the rights of all, because if we infringe on the rights of any persons, we'll be next.
"As for providing a non-intimidating educational environment, our young people have to learn to grow up on college campuses. We have to teach them how to deal with adversarial situations. They have to learn how to survive offensive speech they find wounding and hurtful."
The new official national policy -- carried by aunanimous vote of the board -- "opposes all campus regulations which interfere with the freedom of professors, students and administrators to teach, learn, discuss and debate or to express ideas, opinions or feelings in classroom, public or private discourse ... that others may find repugnant, offensive or emotionally distressing." Others means all others. Any exceptions? Threatening phone calls as well as "threats of attack, extortion and blackmail" -- even though spoken or written speech is involved.
The national policy does not, however, include as unprotected speech the fog-like provisions of the ACLU of California codes. Indeed, the national board opposes the very idea of vague prohibitions against bad speech. The ACLU, says its new policy, intends "to review such college codes and their applications in specific situations on a case by case basis ... "
The policy goes on to insist that educators must educate. College officials should "develop comprehensive plans aimed at reducing prejudice, responding promptly to incidents of bigotry and discriminatory harassment, and protecting students from any further such incidents."
One proposal for inclusion in the policy was that college administrators "address the question of de facto segregation in dormitories and other university facilities."
Much of that de facto segregation is initiated and sustained by black and other minority students. (This voluntary segregation can already be seen in many high schools, as in the lunchrooms.) Michael Meyers, who is black and is the ACLU affirmative action officer, spoke strongly in favor of moving against this kind of segregation:
"We need to address this issue directly. The existence of separate hostile camps feeds ignorance and hate. The university must promote integrated facilities, but in many colleges, the administration facilitates racial segregation in the guise of self-determination."
The proposal passed.
It was a good meeting, except for the end when ACLU executive director Ira Glasser, in the interest of civility, declared that there are no essential differences between the new national policy and the California ACLU speech codes. Some eyebrows were raised; meanwhile, the free-speech dissidents in the California ACLU have organized to try to rescind those affiliates' abandonment of the First Amendment in these matters.
Recently, by the way, Justice William Brennan told me he thought all those college speech codes should be abolished.