Hell week for campus free speech
April 2, 2009
The Huffington Post
The week is not quite over, and it's already been a lousy one for free speech on America's campuses. Yesterday, angry students at the University of Massachusetts Amherst were caught on video stealing a conservative student newspaper, while a police officer stood by and not only watched, but excused the students' behavior. A graduate student protested the attempt to steal hundreds of copies of the newspaper, explaining that the newspaper said right on its front page that only the first copy was free and every following copy was three dollars (a tactic necessitated over the years by hundreds of previous examples of newspaper thefts across the country, once even at the hands of a Berkeley mayor!). He had the papers ripped right out of his hands. You can see for yourself here.
Meanwhile the Maryland state legislature decided to use its great power to prevent a student group at the University of Maryland from having an event featuring Pirates II: Stagnetti's Revenge, a film that is X-rated but likely, in my legal opinion, protected by the First Amendment. With all the uproar, you would think these were children forced to watch the film, rather than adult college students engaged in perfectly legal behavior.
At Boston College, Bill Ayers' speaking engagement was blocked by the University, which cited security concerns and community disapproval. BC completely undermined the security claim by subsequently rejecting an offer for Ayers to appear via satellite.
At Virginia Tech, public criticism is pouring in as the school considers adopting a political litmus test for granting tenure and promotion that requires the school to include "commitment to diversity" in professors' dossiers. Professors would get extra credit for things like altering their publications "to incorporate multicultural or gender perspectives." They would also get credit for participating in politicized workshops--but no credit for similar activities if they don't count as a "diversity accomplishment." This may sound warm and fuzzy, but in practice it coerces professors to tilt their scholarship to whatever official orthodoxy the university thinks is appropriate, which does not square with academic freedom one little bit.
And, despite numerous e-mails from me and international attention, the Oklahoma legislature has still refused to comment on whether it plans to pursue its investigation of Richard Dawkins' March 6 speech, which I have covered in detail previously.
Fighting for free speech on campus can be a sad career choice some weeks, and this is definitely one of those weeks. I recognize that campuses are in many ways the front lines in the culture wars, but I just wish that people would remember that the Bill of Rights and the protections on free speech were designed as the ground rules for maintaining a diverse and pluralistic society. These days, however, it seems that this lesson has been lost and that far too many people only believe in free speech to the extent to which it protects them, and throw it out the window when it's a point of view with which they disagree. If students keep learning these kind of lessons, whether they be taught by campus administrators or state legislatures, we shouldn't be surprised that so many of them believe there is nothing wrong with destroying publications they don't like.
- Hell week for campus free speech, PDF, 235.7 KB , The Huffington Post