I'm a firm advocate for free expression. I believe there should be as few limits on free expression as possible, and that university campuses particularly must be committed to free expression.
However, I am also convinced by Charles R. Lawrence III's argument in "The Debates Over Placing Limits on Racist Speech Must Not Ignore the Damage It Does to Its Victims" (pdf). Lawrence argues that because a college must commit itself to allowing equal educational opportunities to all students--including minority students--reasonable restrictions on bigoted speech may be necessary to allow a safe and open educational environment. Essentially, a university's commitment to equal rights must trump its commitment to free speech.
Our nation's ideals of "liberty" and "equality" are, by their very nature, occasionally in conflict. There's always a delicate balance when it comes to liberty and equality, and I think Lawrence is right: reasonable limits on bigoted speech can still allow for free expression (even bigoted expression, but in a limited capacity), while promoting equality for all students.
Recently, the University of Illinois allowed previously banned images of Chief Illiniwek in its homecoming parade on campus; as the university stated, "The university values free speech and free expression, and considers homecoming floats, decorations, costumes and related signage all representations of such personal expression. Therefore, Chancellor Herman has directed the Homecoming Committee to strike the existing policy from the homecoming float guidelines” (Susan Saulny, New York Times).
Dave Zirin, rightly critical of the racist iconography of Chief Illiniwek, dismisses the free expression argument: "Yes, our forefathers fought and died to protect the right to display caricatures of the conquered at public institutions of higher learning." There's irony in this statement, of course: most of "our forefathers" hated Native Americans and probably would defend mockery of them. But there's a larger point: it doesn't matter what the particulars of expression or ideas "our forefathers fought and died to protect." It doesn't matter what particular forms of expression "our forefathers" would approve or disapprove of (I suspect many of them would disapprove of a whole lot of 21st century expression). The point is they "fought and died"--and created a Constitution--to protect our rights to express pretty much whatever we want. We don't have to consider whether they would like it or not.
The free speech argument is not so easily dismissed, but it is not so simply triumphant in this case, either. The University of Illinois' "Student Code: Article I: Student Rights and Responsibilities" (pdf) allows for free expression on campus (1-103 (a)), but that in such expression students "speak only for themselves," not the academic community as a whole (1-106 (b) (1)). What the University must determine to its own standards is whether expression in a parade on campus constitutes the students' free expression (which it cannot really stop), or whether the parade itself is a University-sanctioned event, and thus in some way approved by the University. If it is the former, then students can freely present images of Chief Illiniwek (however much you or I may disapprove of such expression); if it is the latter, then the University could prevent such images, as it does not itself wish to promote such expression.
Zirin does come back to the free expression issue, quoting a letter from Antonia Darder comparing Illiniwek to other forms offensive speech. It's an effective comparison, and should give us pause--but it still may not diminish the free expression argument.
Ideally, a college community responds on its own that it will not accept racist expression. A few years ago, somebody graffitied a racist slur in the college community I've been a part of for nine years. The campus community responded with a rally to make clear that we would not accept racism, and that we would continue to strive to be an open and tolerant college. Students didn't need legislation to resist bigotry; they resisted organically because it was and is right. But as Saulny and Zirin state, at Illinois many students attended the parade supporting the image of Chief Illiniwek, and there were no protesters at the parade. Sometimes students don't organically rise up to fight against racism. And so I do accept that there are times that a university may impose limits on bigoted expression.
So here's the line. I find Native American "mascots" like Chief Illiniwek distasteful, offensive, and disrespectful. But I also recognize individuals' right to expression that I find distasteful, offensive, and disrespectful. I still believe universities and franchises should abolish the use of racist iconography--I just also recognize the rights of individuals to their own expressions of racist iconography. If the homecoming parade was student-driven, then the individual students in and at the parade have their individual rights to free expression--including expressions of the offensive image of Chief Illiniwek. If the homecoming parade is University-driven, then the University should not allow images of Chief Illiniwek in the parade, as it should not itself sanction the offensive image of Chief Illiniwek.
According to Saulny, "Robin Kaler, the university’s associate chancellor for public affairs, said the nature of the event, a public parade, overrode concerns about the university’s sponsorship. 'We wouldn’t ban a member of the campus community from wearing chief paraphernalia to class or work,' she said. 'We’re not going to ban them from doing that in the parade either.'" Apparently, the University has seen this line between university support and student freedom, and sees the parade in terms of student freedom.
Read Susan Saulny's reporting on the story. Read Dave Zirin's essay on the story. Read Charles Lawrence's essay on racist speech on campuses. There are important ideas here.