Governments cannot, and should not, ban ‘ridicule’
Last semester two students at the University of Connecticut were arrested by campus police after shouting a racial slur as they walked through a school parking lot. The students, who had been drunkenly yelling the word “nigger” as part of some juvenile alcohol-fueled dare game, were subsequently charged under an arcane, bizarre law in Connecticut that forbids “ridicule on account of creed, religion, color, denomination, nationality or race.”
A judge subsequently stopped the University of Connecticut from punishing the two students, citing the “irreparable harm” they would face if the university sanctioned them for their protected speech. Yet the law itself remains on the books of the state—though that may be about to change.
Connecticut lawmakers are now considering a repeal of that law, which was passed in 1917, well before existing First Amendment jurisprudence had firmly established the uniquely broad American right to freedom of speech. One professor referred to the law as “so clearly unconstitutional under the First Amendment that it’s hard to believe that it’s still on the books,” while another doubted that the statute “would survive a constitutional challenge.”
(The Connecticut state government’s aptly misnamed “Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities,” meanwhile, warned against repealing the law, claiming that it is “critical that the state not remove these types of prohibitions that aim to deter or punish this unacceptable behavior.” Sorry, but it’s not the government’s job to “punish” mere “unacceptable behavior.)
If there were a silver lining to the patently unconstitutional arrest of two American students engaging in offensive but protected speech, it would be that a plainly unconstitutional law were repealed and consigned to the dustbin of history. Colleges and universities can, and often do, create their own twisted rules and upside-down forms of justice within the confines of their own campuses. Governments, at least those under the superlative American system of constitutional governance, are thankfully subject to slightly more oversight when it comes to the rights of their citizens.
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