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Conformity a real danger of "political correctness'

In a recent speech at the University of Michigan, President Bush joined in the attack on PC, an abbreviation for the so-called "political correctness" taking hold on American college campuses. The president deplored the efforts of universities to enforce speech codes designed to shield minorities, women and homosexuals from offensive language, real or imagined.

Bush doesn't have any credibility as a defender of First Amendment rights. He did, after all, lead the unsuccessful drive for a constitutional amendment to overturn a Supreme Court decision declaring that flag-burning is constitutionally protected speech.

But as galling as Bush's hypocrisy may be, that doesn't mean the PC threat to the integrity and mission of our universities should be taken lightly.

Unfortunately, because conservative Republicans are out front in condemning PC, many journalists, academics and others who normally count themselves among the staunchest defenders of the First Amendment are looking the other way. Some are even defending speech suppression.

Liberals, who not so many years ago were citing the First Amendment rights of students to ward off efforts to stifle civil rights and anti-war demonstrations, are making a serious mistake in dismissing the issue as a right-wing exaggeration.

In theory, speech codes seem reasonable enough since they purport to promote civility by protecting students from the invective of racists, anti-Semites, sexists and homophobes. But in fact they are subverting the very essence of what a university is all about. Besides, limits on speech simply don't work. Restricting free speech doesn't attack racism, sexism or any of the other -isms plaguing colleges and the rest of society. If anything, it exacerbates tensions and divisions.

One of the few university presidents to speak out against speech suppression is Benno C. Schmidt Jr. of Yale. In a speech to the National Press Club last week, Schmidt said colleges are in "disarray and difficulty" because they have lost confidence in unrestricted speech.

Schmidt, a lawyer and First Amendment scholar, said limits on speech on campuses in the United States, however well-intentioned, are as troubling as efforts to punish flag-burners.

"Offensive and obnoxious speech is the price of freedom," he said.

In a speech to Yale alumni in New York earlier this year, Schmidt said that "universities cannot censor or suppress speech, no matter how obnoxious in content, without violating their justification for existence." To follow such a course, he added, "is to elevate fear over the capacity for a liberated and humane mind . . . and (to loose) an utterly open-ended engine of censorship."

What concerns First Amendment purists like Schmidt is that speech codes often don't stop with punishing bigots. They also stifle open inquiry and demand conformity in thinking and teaching. That, he argues, is the real danger of "political correctness."

On some campuses, professors have admitted that they often avoid controversial subject matter rather than risk being labeled insensitive or worse. One history professor found himself accused of racism by a student who objected to his reading from the diary of a southern slave owner.

Like the rest of society, college students and faculty are in conflict over such issues as race and intolerance. White students question affirmative action programs aimed at bringing greater diversity to campuses. Campus violence against minorities occurs with alarming regularity.

Let's be clear: Colleges cannot tolerate behavior that is hurtful and disruptive. But neither can they make their campuses more civilized by fighting one kind of intolerance with another.

If college administrations don't heed the backlash against speech codes and other forms of PC, the politicians will intervene. Earlier this year, Rep. Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill., joined with American Civil Liberties Union president Nadine Strossen in proposing legislation that would prohibit colleges and universities from disciplining a student "solely on the basis of conduct that is speech."

Unfortunately, PC fits nicely into the Republican strategy of exploiting the nation's racial and cultural divisions for political gain. Democrats would be well-advised not to allow Bush and other Republican demagogues to define this issue to their advantage and to the university's detriment.

Phil Gailey is Washington editor of the St. Petersburg Times.