French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once quipped that "man is condemned to be free, because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything that he does." But while some in the face of this truth use their freedom to illuminate the human condition, others among us use it to wear T-shirts bearing shallower maxims like "Why Date Her When You Can Thete Her?" While such speech is clearly offensive and possibly indicative of a predilection toward violence against women, should it be banned officially by the University? If not, then what is to be done?
Enter Alyssa Ratledge's '11 recent column ("Sex crimes, complacency and complicity," Oct. 29), criticizing universities for taking lax stances on sexual harassment and assault. While Brown's current system for handling assault allegations is reminiscent of that of the Vatican and is in desperate need of reform, this still raises the question of whether the University administration should be in the business of regulating speech on its campus.
In many ways, it already is. Brown has a system of speech codes in place that prohibits "suggestive jokes of a sexual nature," "obscene gestures or sounds," "sexual pictures or displays" and various other forms of expression, however puerile. These speech codes do not contribute to a society where wanton sexual harassment and bigotry are unanimously viewed as reprehensible, even among the aforementioned T-shirt wearers.
Rather, speech codes only serve to push these actions into spaces that the University's authoritative power cannot hope to reach, such as fraternity common rooms and the crowds at Spring Weekend concerts. Instead of kicking chauvinistic and homophobic speech out of arm's reach of the administration and expecting the problem to vanish, it should be noted that such expression is a reflection of the culture that all students allow to prevail by failing to challenge it as individuals.
We as a community should not rely on Mother State — or, in this case, Mother University — to determine our social norms. We should instead take advantage of the fact that such bigotry obeys the Westboro Baptist Church Principle: The more loudly a stupid idea is expressed, the more impetus it provides for its ridicule and eventual downfall.
Allowing the ignorant to spout idiocy may make many uncomfortable, but in the end, will it not be these same people who pay the price when prospective employers see video of them screaming "no means yes" and other sophomoric chants?
Of course, perhaps it isn't that simple. As Ratledge points out, speech that creates a public safety risk must be banned for the sake of the potential victims. But where does one draw the line in determining whether an expression is not constitutionally protected because of its potential harm to others?
There exists judicial precedent stretching back almost a century on this very question. The principle of clear and present danger, first established in 1919 under the Supreme Court case Schenck v. United States, was changed in the 1969 Supreme Court case Brandenburg v. Ohio to cover only speech that would trigger "imminent lawless action."
The oft-cited example of screaming fire in a movie theater is a case of speech that could be reasonably expected to create a dangerous situation in the form of a deadly stampede for the exits. By contrast, a procession of idiots clearly in the throes of adolescence does not constitute a clear and present danger. Though many in the mob may harbor views conducive to sexual assault, they would still be unlikely to molest another student as a direct result of their assembly.
Aside from there being no legal grounds to prevent these people from speaking, as pleasant as that might be for the rest of us, speech codes also send the message that certain groups are somehow less capable of handling irrational invective than others. Because all students are potential targets of bigoted speech, the existence of speech codes belies the attitude that some groups of students are in need of special protection. This is a notion that regards women, students of color and LGBT students as too weak to handle themselves like adults.
Rape is indeed a horrific crime, and it is the inescapable responsibility of the University and of local law enforcement to investigate every allegation of rape in a rigorous and serious manner. However, instead of becoming dependent on the University to serve as the arbiter of what is and is not acceptable speech — again reminiscent of the Vatican — the student community must proactively shun chauvinistic and bigoted speech in the name of solidarity and reason.
If we find ourselves incapable of challenging the view that sexual assault is perfectly acceptable, then we undoubtedly deserve to have our values dictated to us like children.
Hunter Fast '12 knows that his feelings are not more important than the First Amendment, and invites you to test this claim by heckling him at hunter_fast (at) brown.edu.