Tuesday, 27 May, 2003

Free speech versus private property

I picked this one up on NPR's All Things Considered this evening.

Students at Wesleyan University in Connecticut are accusing administrators of trampling on their rights to free speech. The university recently banned the long standing practice of "chalking," in which students used campus sidewalks to make political statements. But in recent years, administrators say, the messages had become offensive.

You can listen to the entire program (or just the one segment) here.

The problem is more than just that the messages are becoming increasingly offensive.  Some have been downright slanderous, accusing other students or members of the faculty of all manner of things.  Chalking proponents are quick to point out that the Constitution guarantees the right of free speech, but says nothing about a right not to be offended.  Fine.  But there's no accountability in chalking, either.  Anybody can write whatever they like, anonymously, and there is no recourse for anybody who is harmed by indiscriminate scribbling.  Accusations of sexual misconduct or other crimes, groundless though they may be, can do irreparable harm to a person's  reputation.

We've been through this before, with the "Free Speech Movement" (what Ayn Rand and other conservatives properly labeled the "Filthy Language Movement") in the 1960's and the current insistence on anonymity on the Internet.  Some people seem to think that, because they have a Constitutionally-guaranteed right of free speech (extended to "free expression" by the Courts), that they can express themselves however they choose with impunity.  What these free expression advocates seem to forget is that society places limits on what is considered acceptable, for example holding that a person who yells "Fire" in a movie theatre can be held liable for damages if there is in fact no fire.   Private institutions (of which Wesleyan University is one), have the right to dictate not only where messages are placed but also (if they wish) what messages are presented, just as individuals have the right to control what messages (if any) are painted on their private property.

It's sad to see each generation of young people making the same mistake with regards to expressing themselves.  Insisting on the right to say whatever they want (or express themselves in any manner they choose) and expecting no repercussions is short-sighted, simple-minded, and shows an astounding lack of respect for the principles upon which the Constitution was founded.  With rights come responsibilities.  The students' right of free speech is and should be subject to the guidelines set down by the University.

If the students want to regain their chalking privilege, they should develop a set of guidelines and ensure that every member of the student body reads and understands the guidelines.  If they follow that with a group of student volunteers (perhaps elected by the student body) who will examine and eliminate any messages that don't meet the guidelines, perhaps the University will agree to reinstate the privilege.