Intimidating basketball chants

Many free-speech controversies, especially on college campuses, are grounded in concerns for civility, politeness and good taste.

University of Maryland officials expressed anger and embarrassment following a men’s basketball game against conference rival Duke University in January 2004, when fans chanted and sported T-shirts with the slogan “Fuck Duke” and directed epithets at Duke players.

This was one of many incidents of offensive or obnoxious cheering by students throughout the country during the 2004 college basketball season. Anderson, chief of the Educational Affairs Division of the Maryland Attorney General’s Office, advised the university that a written code of fan conduct applicable at a university-owned and -operated athletic facility, if “carefully drafted,” would be constitutionally permissible.

University of Maryland Associate Athletics Director Michael Lipitz began working with a committee of students to consider rules of conduct.

The committee ultimately recommended that the university promote voluntary compliance, although rules and formal punishment remain a “last resort” if a proposed standing monitoring committee determines that voluntary compliance is ineffective.

The ostensible purpose behind such guidelines is to enable the majority of fans to enjoy the game unburdened by objectionable or offensive signs, messages and chants.

But any such policy enacted and enforced at a public university such as Maryland should not and perhaps will not survive First Amendment scrutiny.

On the other hand, a private college, not bound by the strictures of the First Amendment, obviously remains free to impose such restrictions.

Other schools, such as Western Michigan University, currently have, or are studying the need for, similar codes to restrict profanity and other abusive language.

And the approach of a new academic year may bring new incidents and new university attempts at regulating fan expression.

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