Free speech has been one of the great American luxuries, but according to the University of Wisconsin it may prove to be too expensive. In April its Board of Regents passed a rule that would make racial, ethnic, or sexist epithets grounds for expulsion. This does not come out of nowhere: last fall the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity at the Madison campus was disciplined for having its pledges hold a mock slave auction in blackface, and there have been at least two other similar incidents.

The original language contained a phrase stating that “epithets shall be presumed to have been uttered with the required intent.” “Intent” was defined elsewhere in the document as intent to demean a student or to create a hostile educational atmosphere. With that phrase, the university was putting the burden of proof on the accused; any reported remark that was found (by some “objective” panel?) to be sexist or otherwise offensive would be in and of itself sufficient evidence of intent to harm—and out the student would go. At the urging of the Wisconsin ACLU, that particular provision was dropped.

While it is some progress to have removed that phrase, it’s not much. Wisconsin has still taken a pick axe to the First Amendment. Even a private school can hardly claim the moral high ground when it moves to restrain that most fundamental practice of free speech—opening our mouths and talking. As it is, the University of Wisconsin is a public institution, funded by the federal and state government, and supposedly subject to those guarantees in the federal and state constitutions that protect a person’s right to open his mouth and make a fool (or worse) of himself.

Wisconsin is not alone. As Nat Hentoff reports in the May Progressive, the University of Buffalo Law School faculty voted unanimously for a “Statement Regarding Intellectual Freedom, Tolerance, and Political Harassment” that says in part that the students’ right to free speech within the law school must be limited by “the responsibility to promote equality and justice.” Anyone directing remarks at “another’s race, sex, religion, national origin, age, or sex preference” is in for trouble.

Similar regulations are in force at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and at Emory, and others are under review at Stanford. As one of the heads of Stanford’s student government, Canetta Ivy, put it, “We don’t put as many restrictions on freedom of speech as we should.” The Afro- American studies major who hopes to go to law school told The New York Times further that “What we are proposing is not completely in line with the First Amendment. I’m not sure it should be. We at Stanford are trying to set a standard different from what society at large is trying to accomplish.”

The regents in Wisconsin have rejected an emergency measure, introduced in the Assembly by. Milwaukee Democrat Rep. G. Spencer Coggs, that could have put their rule into effect as early as the summer session. At press time the House had approved the bill unanimously, while the Senate had as yet to vote. Coggs says that while he agrees “that divergent philosophies should be allowed on a college campus,” still, “You cannot yell fire in a crowded theater. You cannot cause a hostile atmosphere on campus.” He seems to see no difference between the immediate threat to life in the former case, and the immediate threat to hurt feelings in the latter. After all, none of the proponents of these muzzling orders is talking about physical abuse, which is of course illegal and a matter for the police. They are talking about speech.

Wisconsin’s regents want to leave some time for the public to debate the matter—and if you want to argue you’d best do it quick, while such arguments are still permissible. The student-faculty senate at Madison sides with Mr. Coggs, and thinks things are moving too slowly. So much for outspoken youth. So much for the slow victory of sensitivity—and censorship—over the First Amendment. (KD)