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Wednesday, November 05, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist
When does free speech become 'fighting words'?


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On Oct. 8 the College Republicans had a booth in front of the University of Washington Hub, selling cookies. A price list was posted:

On the list were prices per cookie, ranging from 25 cents to a dollar per cookie based on the race of the buyer, with the highest price to whites.

A sign was posted: "Affirmative Action Is Racism."

Jason Chambers, 22, was one of the sellers. For a few hours, he said, students came to talk, some agreeing, some arguing. It was civil. At 12:30 it changed. An insistent crowd of about 200 massed around the display. A couple of students ripped down the sign, scattered donuts and threw a box of cookies at a seller's head. The alleged perpetrators were black, though the crowd was of various races. The cookie sellers were white.

Campus police intervened and student adviser Phillip Hunt asked the Republicans to stop the sale. Hunt's assistant, Rene Singleton, recalled, "The College Republicans were pinned against a brick wall. It was a safety issue."

A UW spokesman said later the Republicans were shut down because they didn't have a permit. That was a bureaucrat's excuse. Conservatives at the University of California, Irvine, had a similar sale and were shut down for operating a retail business in violation of the antidiscrimination laws. Another bureaucrat's excuse.

This was a political demonstration, and entirely peaceful. It didn't block anyone or wreck anything. But at politically correct UW, it was heresy.

The police report said, "The organizations and people felt it was outrageous for the UW to let an organization promote such an event when cultural diversity should be celebrated and not looked down upon." It wasn't an attack on anybody's culture. It was an attempt to mock affirmative action by applying it to cookies.

Set that aside. Consider that students thought it perfectly proper to suppress a political demonstration because it offended them. Singleton said students came to her office all morning asking "that we take action against them. And we did not. We are in support of the First Amendment."

That is exactly right. Says attorney Bruce Johnson of Davis Wright Tremaine, Seattle: "The First Amendment encourages uninhibited, robust and wide-open speech. There is no such thing as a right not to be offended." There is a right not to be harmed.

There was no harm here. There was offense only. Those offended by free speech may speak back offensively. They may not rip down signs and throw cookies.

Then came an extraordinarily pusillanimous statement from the University of Washington Regents. Issued after two weeks of thought, it was signed by Gerald Grinstein of Madrona Investment Partners, president of the regents. It said that the bake sale had been "tasteless" and "hurtful."

"We are deeply disappointed," the regents said, "that the College Republicans' bake sale's 'statement' did not embrace the basic value of respect for its student colleagues."

Were the regents also disappointed in those who tore down the sign and threw the box of cookies at a student's head? No. The regents didn't mention them. The regents proclaimed freedom of speech and condemned only those who had exercised it.

And they said, "We pledge our best efforts to foster a welcoming environment for a diverse University community."

Law Prof. David Bernstein of George Mason University, author of the new free-speech book "You Can't Say That!" (Cato, 2003), said the UW Regents' use of "a welcoming environment" implies that the College Republicans may have created a hostile environment. And under the antidiscrimination laws, that would be illegal.

"Which is absurd," Bernstein says. A hostile environment requires acts, or at the very minimum, fighting words. The College Republicans hadn't done any of that. They had a sign that said "Affirmative Action is Racism" and a price list that applied liberal social policy to the pricing of cookies.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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