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It's Not Just Yelling 'Fire' in a Theater That Can Get You in Trouble

One day in 1992, a University of Pennsylvania student had trouble studying in his Philadelphia dormitory because other students were talking loudly outside. He threw open the window and shouted, "Shut up, you stupid water buffalo!"

That one remark sparked a debate that rages to this day.

The students who were talking were young, black women. They charged the male student with racial harassment. He told school authorities that he had no idea the women were black and meant no offense. He just wanted some peace and quiet.

The case got extraordinary publicity around the country, and a number of colleges immediately enacted what they called hate-speech codes, forbidding people from using words as a weapon of hate.

This, in turn, provoked an outcry from those who argue that a college campus is in fact the perfect place for the free exchange of ideas, no matter how offensive. Washington Post columnist Jonathan Yardley wrote that if one person cannot call another a "water buffalo" on an American college campus, then the campus . . . becomes a sort of thought prison in which people can only say what the university permits them to say.

Others, though, said hate-speech codes were needed to prevent intimidation of minorities, whom many colleges were trying hard to attract and retain.

Most hate-speech codes that were enacted remain in force today. They are based on the so-called "fighting words" exception to traditional guarantees of free speech in the belief that vile, hateful language can promote violence and prevent others from enjoying the freedoms of the land.

If you are curious, campus charges against the young man who hurled that water buffalo epithet out his dorm window were eventually dropped.

Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.