Friday, August 29, 2008

Banning Offensive Websites at USC

USC Provost Chrysostomos L. Max Nikias has censored a student organization's website at the demand of right-wing organizations. Nikias believes that an anti-Semitic “hadith” on the website of Muslim Student Association violates the university's Principles of Community.

As the author of a book and a website about academic freedom (, I am deeply troubled by this act of censorship, and by the repressive “Principles of Community” which no university that protects academic freedom can embrace.
The Principles of Community include this troubling phrase that threatens free speech on campus: “No one has the right to denigrate another human being on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, etc..” Any set of rules which includes the word “etc.” should raise a red flag. This gives the administration the power to ban any “denigration” for any reason. So what exactly does it mean to denigrate?

The threat to free speech is all the more enormous because the offensive phrases from this hadith are part of the historical record. Does Provost Nikias intend to scour the USC library for any books that contain this offensive hadith, and then have the books banned? Or does he believe that censorship should only be limited to the internet? What other ideas will be banned? Will Biblical passages deemed hateful towards homosexuals be banished from USC? If someone starts to hand out copies of the Bible (or the Koran) on campus, will they be obligated to cut out the passages that might denigrate someone? This seems to be exactly what Nikias must demand. There is no exception in the Principles of Community for literature.

I believe that the views expressed on that website were disgusting and offensive. But I also believe that we must defend free speech for disgusting and offensive ideas, especially at a university. Provost Nikias was, and is, perfectly free to condemn this hadith and to try to convince the MSA to remove it voluntarily. But by choosing censorship rather than education, Nikias has opened a Pandora's Box where any viewpoint or historical document deemed offensive can be banned from campus. USC should reverse this appalling decision, and revise its repressive speech code in order to embrace the principles of freedom which are truly essential to any academic community.

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