At UCSD, the remedy for bad speech is … no speech?

The SPLC’s Adam Goldstein, in his debut blog on the Huffington Post‘s new collegiate media site, offers a provocative take on why the University of California-San Diego may be violating the First Amendment in its response to the racially offensive remarks of a few judgment-impaired campus agitators.

Staff members of The Koala — a no-holds-barred humor publication that perennially pushes the boundaries of good taste — exacerbated campus tensions over some fraternity jokesters’ racially themed cookout, by making sport of the controversy (including, reportedly, using the n-word) during a campus television broadcast.

In response, the president of UCSD’s student government, in an action ratified last week by  the Student Senate, impounded funding for all student media — impacting some 30 media outlets, most entirely unconnected with The Koala — to compel their editors to agree to a civil-speech code as a condition for continued funding.

On Friday, University of California President Mark G. Yudof and the administrators of all 10 UC campuses jointly issued a statement broadly condemning racially intolerant speech on campus. Significantly, the statement does not endorse (or indeed, acknowledge) the idea of imposing a mandatory speech code on student media as a remedy. Rather, it concludes: “As always, the remedy for bad speech is good speech.”

(Parenthetically, the origin of that enduring truism often is traced to Justice Brandeis’ stirring concurrence in the Supreme Court’s 1927 ruling in Whitney v. California. The Brandeis opinion is one of the truly great reads in all of constitutional law, but the passage from which the “bad speech/good speech” aphorism derives is a particular goose-bumper: “To courageous, self-reliant men, with confidence in the power of free and fearless reasoning applied through the processes of popular government, no danger flowing from speech can be deemed clear and present unless the incidence of the evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall before there is opportunity for full discussion. If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence. Only an emergency can justify repression.”)

While it’s a rocky transition from Brandeis’ soaring rhetoric to The Koala‘s potty-spewings, Goldstein points out the self-defeating irony in shutting down all student media to punish one: the “mainstream” student media has in fact given exceedingly sympathetic coverage to the affronted students, and has provided them with a vehicle to give voice to their grievances. In a volatile campus climate, reliable coverage from trustworthy news outlets can serve a valuable rumor-control function and provide a healthy outlet for venting of tensions.

Whatever the cure for UCSD’s racial unrest, the remedy surely is not blocking the channels for talking about it.