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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    In public universities, ‘free’ covers all speech, including the uncivil kind

    In the wake of Muslim protests around the world — including the storming of the U.S. embassy in Libya — “civility” and the First Amendment appear at odds again.

    Part of an anti-Islam video shot in California that denigrates the Prophet Muhammad first appeared on YouTube in July and received little attention. But after Egyptian television aired segments of it, according to CNN, the video sparked waves of unrest across the globe.

    Officials have denounced the video, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declaring it “disgusting and reprehensible” and the Obama administration asking Google to review the video to see if it violates YouTube’s policies. Egyptian officials have urged the U.S. to take legal action against it.

    But the trouble with the Constitution is that everyone thinks it’s good until it enables something they don’t like. It’s only easy to defend free speech when it isn’t hurting anyone.

    On public university campuses, which function as forums for open dialogue and free expression, the urge to restrict speech strikes more aggressively than almost anywhere else.

    The UA quietly rescinded a civility policy about a year ago from its Community Living Guide (which students in Residence Life housing are required to abide by).

    The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education applauded the move, saying that the former policy required students to be “respectful” and prohibited abusive speech in verbal, mental or psychological forms even though speech cannot be constitutionally banned just for being disrespectful or abusive.

    The policy also banned “bigotry” but failed to define the term.

    This fall, North Carolina State University added a preamble to a policy it instituted last year. The preamble states that the policy is “not intended to interfere in any way with an individual’s academic or personal freedoms,” and that the university hoped students would “voluntarily endorse” the policy’s expectations.

    The policy originally required residents in NC State campus housing to “be civil with each other” and “speak to each other in a civil manner.” It also prohibited the display of “disrespectful” or “hurtful” items.

    Public universities cannot mandate that you play nice with your classmates. There is no way for the government to mandate civility, though we can all hope that people voluntarily endorse it. The government, and public universities, shouldn’t need to baby-sit civil discourse. People, including students, can hold each other accountable.

    That video remains on YouTube, by the way (albeit with restricted access in countries such as India, Indonesia, Libya and Egypt).

    “We work hard to create a community everyone can enjoy and which also enables people to express different opinions,” a Google spokeswoman said. “This can be a challenge because what’s OK in one country can be offensive elsewhere.”

    Rather than attempt to police speech or litigate it, leave it to non-public officials to hold people accountable for the things they say. Let them say it. Then shed light on it, in a manner similar to blogs like OSU Haters and UNL Haters.

    These Tumblr blogs have short, sweet missions: Find racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise offensive tweets by students at Ohio State University or the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, respectively. Post them on Twitter without comment.

    In most cases, the writer of the tweet is embarrassed. Because hey, they just got called out for being racist. And why shouldn’t they feel embarrassed about saying something so stupid or thoughtless?

    Rather than attempt to prevent people from speaking, projects like OSU Haters force people to examine the consequences of what they say, and to think twice in order to avoid looking like a jerk on the Internet again. Or to consider why their peers would think they’re a jerk in the first place.

    And that would be progress, no government mandate required.

    — Kristina Bui is the editor-in-chief of the Arizona Daily Wildcat. She can be reached at or on Twitter via @kbui1.

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