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April 10, 2006
Tolerating Intolerance

The Los Angeles Times reports on a movement to end so-called speech codes at public schools, universities, and in the workplace that infringe on unpopular speech, especially that which argues against multiculturalism. In what some call a civil-rights movement for Christians, a number of groups have filed suit across the country to protect their right to speak out for their beliefs, even when others find those beliefs offensive:

Ruth Malhotra went to court last month for the right to be intolerant.

Malhotra says her Christian faith compels her to speak out against homosexuality. But the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she's a senior, bans speech that puts down others because of their sexual orientation.

Malhotra sees that as an unacceptable infringement on her right to religious expression. So she's demanding that Georgia Tech revoke its tolerance policy.

With her lawsuit, the 22-year-old student joins a growing campaign to force public schools, state colleges and private workplaces to eliminate policies protecting gays and lesbians from harassment. The religious right aims to overturn a broad range of common tolerance programs: diversity training that promotes acceptance of gays and lesbians, speech codes that ban harsh words against homosexuality, anti-discrimination policies that require college clubs to open their membership to all.

The Rev. Rick Scarborough, a leading evangelical, frames the movement as the civil rights struggle of the 21st century. "Christians," he said, "are going to have to take a stand for the right to be Christian."

Some of this is overblown. No one has started to round up Christians, after all, and we enjoy a good deal of political clout. I agree that Christians face a struggle in modern society to maintain the message of Christ in a world of consumerism and secularism, but that has been the history of Christianity since Judas sold out Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. Christians have had it much tougher than here in America, and still do in many places outside of it.

The travails of Christianity aside, these speech codes really do constitute a threat against the ideal of free speech. As I have written many times, the proper remedy for bad speech is more speech, not prior restraint. While private schools have the right to regulate debate, the use of speech codes at public institutions, especially universities, creates a precedent for state infringement on speech in all areas. If we cannot trust university students to handle offensive speech, can we trust any adult to do so? When do we draw the lines, and who gets to draw them?

The use of such restrictions lead to all sorts of mischief, and we are already seeing the results of our capitulation of freedom to achieve the illusion of comity. Our political process has been restricted to restrain the offensive nature of political campaigning by people who feel passionately about controversial issues. Our media refuses to fully cover stories regarding terrorism in order to avoid offending Muslims. We spend so much time worrying about being offended that we forget that the very concept of republican freedom was an offense against the Crown that meant death for anyone who espoused it.

It's a damned good thing that our forefathers didn't worry as much about speech offending people. In fact, that is the reason for the First Amendment -- to guarantee that people can speak their minds about the issues of the day without fear of government intervention. If it hadn't been for the First Amendment, the same groups asking for speech codes now would never have progressed as far as they did. Not that long ago, some people felt offended by speeches and demonstrations against Jim Crow, against the Klan, against many things we see now as injustices, thanks to the people who used speech instead of violence.

Perhaps the administrators of these institutions should consider that when they pass these silly rules. Our legislators should have considered it before passing the BCRA. These restrictions insult the memories of those who fought to keep speech and this nation free. They may not care for Christians speaking their minds on political issues, but they will certainly regret setting the precedent when someone else's hands rest on the levers of power.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at April 10, 2006 5:20 PM

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