1989 September 22

Univ. of Michigan Campus Speech Code Declared Unconstitutional


In the mid-1980s a number of civil rights and feminist leaders began advocating campus speech codes that would prohibit and punish “hate speech,” meaning expression that offended racial and ethnic minorities, women, and lesbian and gay people. The result was a national controversy over the conflict between the demands of equality and the First Amendment. One of the most important cases to reach the courts involved a challenge to the University of Michigan campus speech code. As the excerpts below indicate, a U.S. District Court judge, in Doe v. University of Michigan, on this day found the code an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment for reasons of vagueness, overbreadth, and the university’s own confusion about the terms of its code.

The Court: “Not only has the administrative enforcement of the Policy been wholly inconsistent with counsel’s interpretation, but withdrawal of the Guide [to the policy], and the eleventh hour suspension of section 1(c), suggests that the University had no idea what the limits of the Policy were and it was essentially making up the rules as it went along.”

And, quoting Thomas Cooley, former Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court: Even if speech “exceed[s] all the proper bounds of moderation, the consolation must be that the evil likely to spring from the violent discussion will probably be less, and its correction by public sentiment more speedy, than if the terrors of the law were brought to bear to prevent the discussion.”

Read: Samuel Walker, Hate Speech: The History of an American Controversy (1994)

Learn more: Gara LaMarche, ed., Speech and Equality: Do We Really Have to Choose? (1996)

Learn more about hate speech on campus: https://www.aclu.org/free-speech/hate-speech-campus

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