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EDITORIAL: Campus free-speech battles remain a concern

Defenders of leftist campus mobs argue that the notion free speech is endangered in academia represents an overblown right-wing fantasy. Tell that to University of Connecticut students Jarred Karal and Ryan Mucaj.

Mr. Karal and Mr. Mucaj aren’t sympathetic characters, but their case highlights the very real deterioration of First Amendment principles on campus and among progressive elites in the face of identity politics and PC culture.

Last October, the Hartford Courant reports, the two students were playing a juvenile game in which they yelled various vulgar words as they walked home from a night on the town. As they walked through the parking lot of a university apartment complex, one of the words they used was a racial slur heard by two residents in the building.

The incident, as happens these days, was caught on video and posted online. University police eventually arrested Mr. Karal and Mr. Mucaj under a 1917 state statute that makes it a misdemeanor to “ridicule on account of creed, religion, color, denomination, nationality or race.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reports the law was intended to address commercial speech. It’s also rarely enforced. The reason is obvious: It’s an affront to the First Amendment.

The two students have since filed a federal lawsuit against the university in which they will almost certainly prevail. The publicity that accompanied their arrests also prompted Connecticut lawmakers to introduce a measure repealing the statute, “which has been criticized by law professors around the country and other groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union,” The Associated Press reports.

“It’s hard to believe it’s still on the books,” a Qunnipiac School of Law professor told the wire service.

But what’s even harder to believe is that a litany of people who should know better lined up to defend the statute. UConn President Thomas C. Katsouleas praised the arrests, and the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities submitted written testimony opposing efforts to jettison the law: “At a time when hate and bias incidents are on the rise, it is critical that the state not remove these types of prohibitions that aim to deter or punish this unacceptable behavior.”

This is dangerous poppycock. What’s “critical” is that government officials respect the Constitution rather than indulge leftist totalitarians who seek to empower the state with the dangerous authority to punish heretics for “ridicule” or “offensive” speech.

While Mr. Karal and Mr. Mucaj deserve condemnation for their insensitivity, their arrests should trouble defenders of liberty. Let’s remember that a society which institutionalizes restrictions on free expression in the name of minimizing offense is on the fast track to a tyranny that can easily one day turn on the preening campus mobs.

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