A U.S. House of Representatives committee is currently debating a bill that would give private university students the right to sue for a violation of their freedom of speech if they are punished under unconstitutional university codes. If passed, the bill, proposed by Rep. Henry Hyde (D-Ill.), could radically alter the way the University formulates and enforces its racial harassment policy. The proposed statute prohibits universities and colleges from "subjecting any student to disciplinary sanctions solely on the basis of conduct that is speech." The amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act also states that students may sue an institution if they are punished under a restricting policy. Under the bill, if a court deems a policy to be unconstitutional, the students' punishments would be repealed and the school would have to pay the students' legal fees. Currently, the University's private school status precludes it from having to comply with the Constitution's guidelines on free speech. In 1989, a state court ruled that the University of Michigan's harassment policy -- which is almost identical to the University's code -- was unconstitutional. But the University is not subject to similar court challenges. Under the proposed statute, however, the University would have to follow federal regulations protecting free speech. "If it were a law, it would subject private universities to the same sort of threat of litigation in these matters as the public universities," Law School Dean Colin Diver said yesterday. Diver said the proposed law would invalidate the University's current harassment policy because it would be subject to litigation for being "unconstitutionally vague" like Michigan's harassment code. "As a practical matter, the passage of the Hyde amendment would force the University to repeal the existing policy and develop a new policy that conforms to the First Amendment, and soon," Diver said. Because the code as a whole would be invalid, the University would have trouble punishing even obvious cases of harassment by speech, Diver said. Throughout the campus-wide debate over the University's racial harassment policy, faculty and students have debated what, if any, speech should be prohibited under the University code. Several people have argued that the policy should cover some speech, which they said has the same effect as harmful actions, while others argue that no speech should ever be punishable. If Hyde's bill becomes law, the tone of campus discussions may change, with administrators placing a greater emphasis on free speech to comply with the strict guidelines of the First Amendment. "A lot of people have been simply not willing to take the First Amendment concerns seriously," said Diver, who has advocated a narrow harassment policy throughout the year-long debate. "The prospect of liability for curtailing somebody's free speech would push to the top of the list to take into consideration." But the prospect of a law preventing the University from enacting a restrictive harassment policy scares some faculty and students, who say the bill may promote harassing speech. "I think students should have the fundamental right to sue for free speech and ought to have it protected," graduate student activist Elizabeth Hunt said last night. "I don't think it should include racial slurs, ethnic speech or harassment." "I hope it's not a smokescreen for striking down harassment [policies]," Hunt added. President Sheldon Hackney, who is responsible for rewriting and implementing the University's racial harassment policy, could not be reached for comment.Comments powered by Disqus
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