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Free speech on campus

December 6, 2002

Censorship is a major sport on our campuses, but every now and then, some university surprises us by doing the right thing. Take the Tom Paulin case at Harvard.Paulin, an anti-Israel poet, told a Cairo newspaper that Brooklyn-born Jewish settlers on the West Bank “should be shot dead” because they are “Nazis, racists.” (Later he said, “I do not support attacks on Israeli citizens under any circumstances.”) The Harvard English Department invited him to speak, withdrew the invitation after protests, then withdrew the withdrawal and let him talk. Paulin seems to be inflamed and unbalanced, but so are many others who speak at Harvard. Let’s hear what he has to say.

Elsewhere, Harvard isn’t doing too well on the free-speech front. A tiny message (“incompetent morons”) in the corner of a cartoon criticizing the business school’s career services program was enough to bring the wrath of the administration down on the editor of Harbus, the school newspaper. Deeply affronted, the business school issued a “verbal warning” to Harbus editor Nick Will, who then resigned under the pressure. The administration said Will and the newspaper had violated “community standards.” The Record, the newspaper of the Harvard Law School, said the incident showed that “speech within universities today is more restricted than in almost any sphere of American society.” True, but we’ve known this for years.

Harvard Law has its own free-speech problems. Black students and their allies are pushing hard for a speech code that would restrict many unspecified “offensive” comments in and out of classes. Professor Alan Dershowitz said, “These are people with extraordinarily thin skins who … insist that Mommy, Daddy and the dean come to their rescue instead of debating in the market of free ideas.”

Universities and many students have a way or extolling free speech and undermining it at the same time. Here are some current anti-speech ploys:

“No one is more strongly in favor of free speech than I am. However, my opponent is saying things that really annoy me.”

  • A student at New York University tore down a student poster that said “Think big: Bomb Iraq.” In a letter to the school newspaper, the student said this was not a free-speech violation and that he, himself, is a member of the ACLU. No, he said, it was a blow against “genocide,” because the poster was “no less dangerous than physical assault.” Free speech is great, but things are tense around here, so let’s do without it.
  • After a speech at Emory University by conservative activist David Horowitz, the campus Black Student Alliance praised free speech but said “no speaker should visit this campus and willingly disrupt the already fragile social environment.” The Alliance asked for an apology to campus minority groups, including “Latin Americans,” whom Horowitz apparently offended by calling Fidel Castro a sadistic dictator. It would be wrong to punish people for speaking freely, so we won’t. However, we intend to get them later in some other way.
  • Six white students at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville went to a party at a local bar wearing blackface. Dumb. The administration said it wouldn’t punish them because the university is firmly committed to free expression. Nice. No protest from the administration, though, when the six students’ fraternity, Kappa Sigma, was suspended by its parent organization over the incident. The administration said it would not automatically reinstate the campus chapter even if the national fraternity organization wants to. The chapter would have to “demonstrate a commitment” to university standards, whatever that means. Free speech is important, so we have set aside these small areas on the edge of the campus for it.
  • At the University of Houston, an anti-abortion group sued and won after the administration denied permission for an exhibition on the main campus green. So the university created four “free speech zones” that can be used by students who register 10 days in advance for any protest. So if the U.S. invades Iraq on Jan. 1, anti-war students can start demonstrating on the 11th. Free speech is crucial, but, gosh, it has to be nice.
  • Professor Peter Kirstein of Saint Xavier University in Chicago wrote a vicious e-mail to an Air Force cadet, accusing him of “aggressive baby-killing tactics.” He later expressed regret, but his university suspended him and imposed other sanctions.
  • In a censorship case at all-male Wabash College in Indiana, the student senate voted to defund the campus conservative magazine and expel it from the ranks of recognized student groups. Student body president Brian Lawlor said the magazine had violated the Wabash gentleman’s rule: “The last issue was extremely ungentlemanly, and we don’t want to be associated with that.” Final score: niceness, 1; free speech, 0.
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