Amherst verbal code starts war of words

November 24, 1995

A draft "harassment policy" at the biggest college campus in New England has resurrected the debate about university speech codes. It aims to punish "verbal or physical conduct" that "discriminatorily alters" the conditions under which individuals or groups live at the Amherst campus of the University of Massachusetts.

The proposed rules, say its critics, are at best bureaucratic gobbledygook and at worst a recipe for a "micro-regulation" of college life that erodes free speech. And a provision that students sit on panels to decide harassment cases could see them passing judgement on professors, it is claimed.

The university administration is seeking to bar harassment on the basis of "race, colour, national or ethnic origin, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, marital status, veteran status or disability".

The campus's Graduate Employees Organisation, a 3,000-member union for graduate students who work on campus, wants to add "citizenship, culture, HIV status, language, parental status, political affiliation or belief, and pregnancy status" to the list. So-called speech codes, guidelines for what is acceptable speech on campus, have largely gone out of fashion in United States academia. Overturned by courts as unconstitutional, they often appear to inflate minor incidents of racial or personal tension rather than improve campus harmony.

"I cannot imagine why the university wants to cause itself embarrassment when such policies have been struck down all over the country," said Daphne Patai, a professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Amherst. "I have not heard a single faculty member defend it."

Professor Patai, who is Jewish, went so far as to compare the harassment policy to the German term Gleichschaltung, which she translated as "bringing into alignment, coordination" and that was "what Nazi life is all about". The university was trying to make itself a place "where nobody will ever be upset about anything," she said.

Amherst has never been far from the front-line in the college "culture wars". The magazine of the National Association of Scholars, a conservative-leaning organisation, recently published an article called "Weimar at Amherst", another reference to Germany.

Chancellor David Scott has promised a series of "statements" on consensual relations, work place violence, gender-neutral language, and religious displays and holidays.

In a statement he said the proposals were the product of seven years' deliberations and will now go to a new task force for wideconsultations.

James Delle, an anthropology student who heads the GEO, said one reason for the new rules was to protect teachers' assistants who have suffered abuse from students, including late-night phone calls, for assigning readings that are considered politically correct.

Women teachers' assistants have been told "you are nothing but a radical feminist lesbian, you are trying to indoctrinate us", Mr Delle reported. Though five professors including Professor Patai have signed their names to lengthy critiques of the policy as vague and contradictory, he down-played the "political rantings of one or two faculty members".

The importance of what constitutes "hate speech" on campus came home again this week. The Daily Collegian newspaper published two columns by a graduate student Hussein Ibish on the assassination of President Yitzhak Rabin. One detailed alleged atrocities committed by Rabin during his military career.

The other, called "Zionism and Assassination", alleged it was Zionists who bombed synagogues in Arab countries to create terror and compel Jews to leave for Israel. According to Larry Goldbaum, director of Amherst's Jewish affairs office, Jewish students were "deeply upset".

Mr Goldbaum's job was only created last May after the controversial visits of a succession of African-American speakers, including Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, because they claim Jews have played a role in oppressing and controlling blacks.

"We do need to find ways in which we can create an environment in which all of us can live without feeling threatened or harassed because of our group identity," Goldbaum said. "But I don't know that a speech code is the way to do that."

There have been other isolated examples of racism at Amherst. A cafeteria staff worker was accused of making a racist joke, a Haitian dormitory adviser was punched and abused by a non-student visitor, a retired mathematics professor was accused of anti-Semitism. But all were dealt with under existing rules, university staff said.

Similar policies at the Universities of New Hampshire, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Stanford and George Mason in Washington DC have been struck down on free speech grounds.

The University of Pennsylvania abandoned its code after a Jewish student was charged with racial harassment for using the Yiddish term "water buffaloes". After a national controversy, he won a student-government seat running as the "water-buffalo guy".

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