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Campus hostility to free speech

May 27, 2001

David Horowitz’s ad in college newspapers arguing against reparations for slavery was bound to provoke imitators with the same goal: showing how hostile to free speech our campus culture has become. So the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) sent college newspapers an ad debunking “the 10 most common feminist myths,” many of them false or wildly exaggerated feminist statistics allegedly showing how relentlessly men oppress women. The ad called campus feminism “a kind of cult,” and asked, “Are you tired of male-bashing and victimology? … Have you been misled by factually challenged professors?”The Yale Daily News ran the ad. Unsurprisingly, so did conservative papers at Northwestern and Dartmouth. The Columbia Spectator refused to, on grounds that it doesn’t accept political ads, though it published a Ralph Nader campaign ad last fall. The Harvard Crimson said no, dithered for two weeks over the ad’s “unnecessarily incendiary” language, then brightly said yes as the academic year was ending. (“They were just running out the clock,” said Kate Kennedy of IWF.)

But the most revealing reaction was at UCLA, where the Daily Bruin ran the ad and campus feminists responded with outrage of the sort that greeted Horowitz. Two feminist groups demanded that the Bruin issue an apology and a retraction, then promise never to accept similar ads in the future. Christie Scott of the UCLA Clothesline Project said: “I think it was a violent ad, a very hostile ad. It breeds a very bad attitude toward women.”

This language reflects two lines of thought on how to achieve censorship without seeming to violate the First Amendment. One is to depict ordinary argument as violent behavior, which should be forbidden or punished like any other act of violence, not protected as speech. Stanley Kurtz, a fellow at the Hudson Institute, writes: “Once words we don’t like have been equated with acts of violence, there’s no place left for free speech.”

The other line of attack is to suppress speech under sexual harassment doctrine on grounds that a hostile environment is being created. Campus codes of behavior seem to invite this strategy. UCLA feminists discovered that the guidelines for student publications forbid any ad that “stereotypes … persons of a particular gender.” Since the IWF ad makes the case that sexual differences between males and females are real, not “constructed,” as campus orthodoxy now insists, the ad presumably could have been banned as harming women by promoting a stereotype.

Arguments like this show why vigorous debate is so rare and dangerous on campus these days. Almost any unorthodox view can be denounced by the nearest censor as a violent or hostile act. Better to keep your head down, keep smiling at the PC police, and wait until graduation to say what you think.

Tina Oakland, feminist and director of the UCLA Center for Women and Men, was particularly incensed about the first of the ad’s 10 items: “Myth: One in four women in college has been the victim of rape or attempted rape.” Challenging this number, Oakland told Ben Domenech of National Review Online, is like denying the Holocaust. But the one-in-four stat is one of feminism’s most popular “advocacy numbers” that can’t stand much analysis. A recent survey funded by the Justice Department said about 1.7 percent of female college students per year are victims of rape — “unwanted completed penetration by force or threat of force” — and an additional 1.1 percent are victims of attempted rape. In a companion study, when a similar group of women were asked differently worded questions, the rate of completed rapes was 11 times lower, 0.16 percent.

The U.S. Department of Education’s studies of reports to campus police came up with a low rate, too. Counting both on- and off-campus offenses, these statistics show about 1,800 forcible sex offenses (including fondling) each year at the more than 6,300 post-secondary institutions. If you triple that number to allow for huge numbers of unreported offenses, it would still come to less than one rape per school each year.

Oakland told the Daily Bruin that the one-in-four rape statistic had been cited on the official Web sites of the FBI and the American Medical Association. She wasn’t fazed when Ben Domenech informed her that the stat is nowhere to be found on either the FBI and AMA sites. No problem. “The statistics don’t really matter that much in the big picture,” she said. “We’re just trying to focus on the real issue here, to debate about civil rights, not bicker about numbers.” First, challenging her numbers is like denying the Holocaust. Then when the numbers turn out to be shaky, well, they just don’t matter.

The IWF ad, which will run in more college papers next fall, is a clever way of forcing debate on feminist numbers. Professional researchers know these statistics are wobbly or false, but the news media and public often take them as gospel. Now they will have to be debated. The IWF also grasped the power of Horowitz’s stunt — bringing college intolerance into the open by offering an ad he knew the censors would suppress. To many, it was a revelation that the news media could be forced to focus on the oppressiveness of current campus orthodoxy. Horowitz changed the discussion. IWF is just the first of his imitators.

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