Civil Rights Commissioner: Young Adults' Speech Should Be Restricted

Saturday, 02 Aug 2014 05:00 PM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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The brain of a 21-year-old is still developing, so there should be restrictions on what such young minds should hear and say, a Democrat on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said at a recent briefing on sexual harassment, a professor and expert who testified at the meeting says.

Eugene Volokh, a professor for the UCLA School of Law, wrote in The Washington Post  this week, that comments made by Commissioner Michael Yaki sounded as if he was "coming out in support of speech codes that ban speech and symbolic expression that is perceived as conveying a racist or sexist message."

Yaki is a former senior adviser to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and a former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Volokh said he was passing Yaki's comments along as he is "a political figure who holds a significant position in the federal civil rights establishment."

The hearing was held to discuss handling of sexual assault claims and speech codes on campus, said Volokh, but "some of the discussion of the latter going beyond just sex and covering material that’s offensive based on race and other characteristics."

According to excerpts from the meeting, which Volokh said "matches his recollection of the comments," Yaki said, while questioning Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, that there are many ways young adults can get out of control with their speech, but there is no prohibition on campuses about their conduct.

"What about a slave auction at a fraternity engagement or a day where another group decides that they’re going to celebrate Latino culture by making everyone dress as janitors and mop floors or a situation involving women, have them as a ritual parade around in skimpy clothing and turn in some show or something?" Yaki asked Lukianoff.

But speech codes that ban speech and expression have been stricken down in court decisions, said Volokh, specifically when it comes to racially and sexually offensive fraternity activities.

Yaki said during the hearing that since the Supreme Court has declared the death penalty unconstitutional for minors, because, he thinks "overall in bodies of science is that young people, not just K through 12 but also between the ages of 16 to 20, 21 is where the brain is still in a stage of development."

There are "certain factors" in how the younger brain, even in adults 21 and younger, process information, Yaki said, which is "vastly different from the way that we adults do."

So, since the younger brain works differently and university campuses are relatively small environments, Yaki said, "I think that there are very good and compelling reasons why broader policies and prohibitions on conduct in activities and in some instances speech are acceptable on a college campus level that might not be acceptable say in an adult work environment or in an adult situation."

Yaki said he is trying to determine how universities regulate such matters for "a population of young people, who for lack of a better word, don’t process in the same way that we do when we’re in our late 20s and 30s."

Volokh said he found Yaki's words "misguided."

"While no doubt young adults are different from older adults — whether in their brain functioning as such, or in their experience, emotional maturity, and the like — that hardly justifies restricting their right to speak, or restricting speech that can be heard by them, especially when they are old enough to vote," he concluded.

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