Sunday, April 10, 2011

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on speech codes

from Presidential Lectures: Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: Commentary: J. Slaughter:
People do bad things, things they know that are bad, for what they feel at the moment were good reasons. One is to institute speech codes. Trample all over the First Amendment, the right of free speech, because we decide that using certain language hurts our fellow human beings--it demeans their humanity. While that might seem like a good idea, the long-term consequences on the right to free expression are far greater than whatever immediate hurt or pain a woman would feel for being called a bitch or a black would feel for being called a nigger. If we're talking about actual physical harm, laws against that exist already. It's not worth it to me to assuage the pain by killing off the First Amendment.
Speech codes are symbolic acts. They let a group of people say, 'This symbolizes that we at the University of Wisconsin are not the sort of community where we would tolerate someone saying the word 'rigger.'' Well, big deal. But there are other symbolic consequences, like what's the effect on freedom of inquiry. I think we're all bigger and more secure than that. I think we have to allow people to say even unpopular things and nasty things in order to protect the right of us to attack our government and say whatever's on our minds.