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A Bill of Rights, Not a Code of Etiquette

By Wendy Kaminer
   
        Late last year, when Fox News refused to run an ad by the Center for Constitutional Rights, criticizing president Bush for destroying the Constitution, liberals rightly protested, accusing the network of censorship.  They should keep this case in mind when considering recent charges by a Wisconsin pro-life group that three university newspapers declined to run its ad cautioning students about the alleged dangers of emergency contraception.  An editor at one of the papers (at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Racquet,) claims that the ad is “under consideration,” but a spokeswoman for the pro-life group claims the ad was rejected outright as inappropriate.  Whatever.

        Provocative, political ads regularly spark free speech controversies.  In 2001, some 18 college newspapers did right wing provocateur David Horowitz the favor of refusing to accept his ad denouncing reparations for slavery.
Naturally the ad received a quite a lot of free publicity as a result, especially when a student mob at Brown University destroyed copies of the Brown Daily Herald in which the ad appeared.

         "There's a fine line between free speech and being disrespectful and distasteful," one student protester explained absurdly, apparently assuming that the First Amendment has some purpose other than protecting speech that he and his cohort deem “distasteful.”  But while this effort to justify censoring distasteful or disrespectful speech seemed too stupid to prevail, it triumphs today in the increasing demand for “civility codes” on campus and, off campus, in efforts even at the ACLU to deter dissent by labeling it “uncivil.” 

        Yes, private institutions have a constitutional right to ban dissent, although it may sometimes be unwise for them to do so (the ACLU board embarrassed itself two years ago by proposing to bar board members from criticizing the ACLU.)  But the continuing erosion of our cultural commitment to free speech has already begun to erode its legal guarantees.  As I wrote 7 years ago, it's a Bill of Rights, not a Code of Etiquette; let’s hope that’s still true seven years hence.


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