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Debate on college campuses is now seen as assault

March 27, 2001

Controversies on the modern campus tend to follow a rigid story line:

1. Brownshirt activity erupts (speakers prevented from speaking, newspapers stolen and/or burned, editorial offices or dean’s offices trashed).2. The administration says quietly that this is not a good thing, or it mumbles indecisively that two great ideals are in conflict: diversity and free expression.

3. Protesters and half the faculty take an impassioned pro-brownshirt stance, arguing that the so-called offense was an understandable reaction to hate speech and great psychic injury. They refer here to the pain of being exposed to ideas they don’t agree with. If thousands of papers have been stolen so that nobody can read them, at least four boneheaded professors will announce triumphantly that you can’t steal free papers.

4. The administration switches into its therapy mode and it talks about the insensitivity that provoked the brownshirt eruption. A small and veiled reference to free speech is allowable at this point, but the main emphasis is on feelings and the need to protect them from hurtful expression. The administration insists that the wounded feelings of the perpetrators need the caring attention of the whole university.

This scenario unfolded as scripted at Brown University after the student newspaper, the Daily Herald, ran an ad by conservative author David Horowitz. In sometimes provocative and pugnacious language, the ad denounced the idea of paying reparations to the descendants of American slaves. “We certainly don’t reject advertising on its political content,” said the editor in chief, Brooks King. “It’s disgraceful not to run an ad because people on your campus are going to disagree with it.”

Protesters demanded that the money charged for the ad be turned over to them, but the editors said no. So protesters stole 4,000 copies of the newspaper and replaced them on the racks with fliers charging the editors with insensitivity. They also tried to break into the Herald office to destroy the remaining copies of that day’s paper.

Brown’s interim president, Sheila Blumstein, called the theft “unacceptable.” A great wave of protest swept through the campus denouncing the Horowitz ad as hate speech or hate assault. The Herald reported that some members of the administration expressed agreement with the claim that the ad was a racial assault. One professor said he knew students “who haven’t been able to eat or sleep because the paper attacked people of color.” Another professor said: “If something is free you can take as many copies as you like. This is not a free-speech issue. It’s a hate-speech issue.”

Blumstein seemed to back off her mild criticism of the newspaper thefts, endorsing free speech but describing the Horowitz ad as “deliberately and deeply hurtful.” Responding to the pain of “members of the community who feel most hurt” must be a defining value at Brown, she said.

A stronger and clearer defense of free speech came from a student, Carl Takei, president of Brown’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. He said attempts to portray the ad as a case of racial assault were false and dangerous: The ad is “clearly a political advocacy piece, containing assertions that one might expect to hear being said by conservative senators or written in legitimate national publications.” Takei warned that it would be a grave mistake to expand Brown’s amorphous hate-speech code to encompass the ad.

Straightforward defenses of free speech are now rare on a campus like Brown. “This is just the latest stage of a 15-year decline in respect for free expression on college campuses,” said Harvey Silverglate, a Boston lawyer and co-founder of a Philadelphia-based group, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), that often defends students from the workings of their politically correct colleges.

On many campuses, students are encouraged to think of other people’s ideas and criticism as assaults. A whole vocabulary has sprung up to convert free expression into punishable behavior: hate speech, verbal conduct, verbal assault, intellectual harassment and non-traditional violence, a fancy term for stinging criticism. Universities tell students they have a right not to be harassed by hostile speech.

Well, sure. Nobody should be harassed. But the connection between harassment and speech is made so relentlessly on campuses that many students think they have a right not to be offended. Real debate fades as ordinary argument is depicted as a form of assault. The conversion of the campus into a culture of feelings makes it worse.

The feel-your-pain rhetoric of admininstrators who reward hurt feelings has the obvious effect of encouraging more students to swoon when their ideas are contradicted. In the long run, it also makes many topics too dangerous to raise. But being exposed to discomforting ideas is the price of freedom. Someone should advise college administrators to share this insight with their students.

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