Why the AHA Was Correct on Speech Codes
The American Historical Association, at its annual meeting, amended an anti-speech codes resolution so that it condemned only speech zones. InsideHigherEd reports.
The AHA was technically correct to vote down an absolute condemnation of all speech codes (see text here: http://hnn.us/articles/32917.html). Consider this: a ban on shouting down speakers is essential at a university, but it is a restriction on the free speech of audience members, and therefore a “speech code.” The same goes for threats and other forms of illegitimate speech. What we need are good speech codes that only restrict speech when it is necessary to protect the legitimate rights of others, not a ban on every speech code. However, I wish the AHA had generally condemned speech codes with a more carefully written resolution, because I’ve never read a campus speech code that’s ideal; all of them wrongly restrict free expression.
Unfortunately, it appears from this report that many of the AHA members are opposed to free speech. Barbara Ransby of UIC is correct to say that free speech is not absolute. But she’s wrong to think that a “climate of civility” must be imposed for free speech to exist. Even if civility is good thing (I’m not convinced of it yet), civility should result from free decisions, not some administrative imposition, precisely because it’s so dangerous to give anyone the power to determine who is not “civil.”
It should be noted, though, that this resolution is fundamentally different from the one about the Academic Bill of Rights, which is an effort to use legislatures to impose an attack on academic freedom against colleges. This resolution deals purely with internal college issues, and therefore the AHA should be careful to only embrace a resolution that is accurately worded to express what free speech on campus means. It would be even better if the AHA created a committee, working with the AAUP and other disciplinary associations, to write a model “speech code” that protects freedom of speech on campus and urges colleges to get rid of provisions that limit free expression.