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On a mild, sunny September day, John Banzhaf, a law professor at George Washington University, leans back in his leather chair behind a desk littered with stacks of paper and Diet Coke cans and delivers some shocking news. “The student body at GW now faces one of its greatest threats to free speech in its history,” he declares, tapping his fingers together. Banzhaf, an expert on public-policy law, lays it out like this:
A faculty member who also had a consulting business happened to be off campus for the day, working at his office. Suddenly someone he didn’t know, someone who wasn’t even affiliated with the university, barged in to demand his time without an appointment. He rudely told the stranger to leave, and the stranger did. But it wasn’t over. Months later, the professor learned that the school was investigating his actions after the uninvited guest called the university’s Regulatory Compliance Help and Referral Line—or what Banzhaf refers to as the “rudeness police”—to report the professor’s surly behavior.
Banzhaf claims that this very episode occurred during the early months of 2004, though he will not provide names or details. The administration had implemented the complaint hot line for students, faculty, and citizens two years earlier in response to hurt feelings over a Confederate-flag-waving incident and some controversial editorial cartoons (including a professor portrayed as a dominatrix). But it wasn’t until this fall, when he heard the accused professor’s story and learned that the line had actually triggered an investigation, that Banzhaf decided to take action.
Armed with a September ruling from the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights that renders any attempt by a university to regulate speech illegal, Banzhaf has responded to this threat by starting a one-man campaign to put the “rudeness hot line,” as he calls it, out of business. In addition to penning a scathing editorial in the student newspaper, the GW Hatchet, on Sept. 21, Banzhaf began targeting the media, sending out press releases admonishing the administration in 14-point type. “The so-called ‘Rudeness Police,’” he promised, were “under attack.” Then, he called free-speech watchdog the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which shamed GW all over its Web site. Finally, Banzhaf says, he has prepared to take GW to court and will name the administration official who “tried to interrogate” the professor named in the complaint.
But while Banzhaf isn’t short on enthusiasm, he may be short on allies. On a recent afternoon, members of GW’s student body seem unconcerned about the potential violation of their First Amendment rights. As she finishes up a hot dog outside of the Marvin Student Center, senior Kimberly Akuna vaguely recalls a few postcards advertising the compliance line’s 888 number, but she’s otherwise unaware of the possibility that she could wind up in a permanent file in a clandestine security office. She isn’t concerned about finding out that she’s under investigation, either. “If I get a notice in my mailbox from GW, I usually dump it—unless it’s a bill,” she says.
Akuna is among the ranks of uninterested young people across the campus, including law students, who mainly know of Banzhaf as the professor who teaches a class that requires students to file at least one lawsuit. “I’ve heard that a student of his filed a lawsuit against a D.C. dry cleaner because he charged 50 cents extra for women’s shirts,” says Steve Driscoll, a second-year law student who’s hanging outside the law school with friends and eating a sandwich. (Banzhaf proudly confirms the rumor, ticking off other lawsuits he has participated in or inspired, including last year’s much-talked-about obesity case against McDonald’s. “Whenever I see something wrong and I can use my legal skills to right it, I’ll get involved,” he explains.)
Banzhaf’s legal zeal is exactly what worries Driscoll. “It might be a legitimate case against the compliance line, but coming from Banzhaf, I think a lot of people just roll their eyes.”
Driscoll’s friend Rebecca Ross, another second-year, says Banzhaf’s mission probably serves a purpose. But the existence of the compliance line hasn’t silenced her voice; she’s always been as open as she wants in class. “This place is way more progressive than Georgetown law school, but I’m also pretty hard to offend,” she says.
For their part, GW officials will not comment on the investigation of the professor. But they say they have just followed the lead of many other prominent universities in installing the line, including Johns Hopkins University, Harvard University, and a spate of Midwestern state schools. They contend that the Regulatory Compliance Help and Referral Line merely serves as a resource to ensure that people with potential compliance violations are directed to the right department at the university. “The line is not used to create a central depository for information, nor does it replace existing university procedures for investigating complaints,” contends GW spokesperson Matt Nehmer.
A recent call to the compliance line proves less ominous than Banzhaf’s press releases project. A polite recorded voice instructs would-be complainants that the line is available to them 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to document their “workplace concern.” Then “communications specialist” Nicki picks up, prepared to take down the complaint, even though she admits that the company for which she works, Global Compliance Services, deals mostly with corporations, not colleges.
“We can take down whatever information about workplace concerns you want to provide. Then we send it to our quality department in North Carolina, which sends it to the proper people,” Nicki says. “I’m not really familiar with university policies. I just document, and they determine.”
All the more reason for concern, Banzhaf says. The congenial interactions on the compliance line masks its instigators’ true intention: forcing students and professors to always be civil, and therefore ending the “robust exchange of ideas” essential at a university. Banzhaf dismisses the fact that only one victim—the unnamed professor—has come to light. “I think most people don’t become aware of a problem until it hits them. A student would probably be blissfully ignorant until she makes a remark, a complaint is filed, and suddenly she’s in hot water.”
As long as the line remains in service, Banzhaf says, he intends to fight it. But in the meantime, he has some free legal advice for the GW community: “Until we can resolve the issue, I’m advising everyone not to say anything that could hurt anyone’s feelings or might otherwise be regarded as insensitive, sexist, racist, homophobic, or just plain rude, for their own well-being.” CP