‘New York Times’ disappoints
June 29, 2007
The Huffington Post
I am, to say the least, disappointed by Joseph Berger’s column in The New York Times today concerning Evan Maloney’s film “Indoctrinate U” and free speech on campus in general. I have been corresponding with Joe for several weeks, and even had lunch with him this past Friday. I had hoped that after such extensive interaction, I had demonstrated to him that a serious and ongoing free speech problem exists on campus. I also hoped that I had convinced him that taking student fee funding away from a student newspaper for printing a controversial article is censorship. Unfortunately, I was wrong.
How is diversity achieved when those students are voluntarily confining themselves to ghettos of the ALANA [African, Latino, Asian and Native American] Center and Blegen House [“A lesbian and gay center for the study of social change”]? I find the objective of diversity to be utterly meritless, suggesting that our colleges should become some zoological preserve in some paternalistic attempt [to] benefit our ‘non diverse’ students….
[S]tudents complained that the language was insulting and called for banning The Imperialist. For weeks, the issue was debated by the student association, which finances the publication. Ultimately, the group withheld its money for one year and publication was suspended.
Withholding money is most certainly punishment. And any journalist should recognize that suspending a newspaper is a drastic step. Nonetheless, Berger overlooks the disturbing ramifications of The Imperialist’s punishment, content instead to praise Vassar’s student body for responding “without violence”:
What was notable was that Vassar, a college of 2,360 students founded in the 19th century on progressive ideals—and a place where conservatives remain a distinct minority—hashed out the matter without violence and did not trash or burn newspapers as has happened at other campuses.
While I can think of few things more chilling than employing violence, theft and destruction to suppress unpopular opinions, lauding students—as Berger does here—simply for not resorting to such illegal, illiberal and immoral tactics is stunning. The bottom line is that a student newspaper criticized the polarization of students by race and orientation—and, for doing so, the newspaper lost funding and was suspended for a year. Exactly how is that an acceptable outcome at an American liberal arts university?
Vassar deserves credit because, as students explained, the dispute was not focused on whether The Imperialist could argue that a center exclusively for minority students fragmented the community; it was over whether the language used to express the idea was offensive.
In terms of censorship and its justifications, the arguments of power rarely have changed, especially in societies that believe themselves free. Public officials in such nations have openly supported the ideal of free expression for centuries, but so many of those same officials also have worked to undermine the very freedom they claim to support. In his classic treatise, On Liberty (1859), the English philosopher John Stuart Mill noted that while many people claim to believe in “free speech,” in fact just about everyone has his or her own notions of what speech is dangerous, or worthless, or just plain wrong—and, for those reasons, undeserving of protection.[…]Mill addressed one of the major rationales for imposing constraints on free speech on campuses today, namely that speech should be “temperate” and “fair.” Mill observed that while people may claim they are not trying to ban others’ opinions but merely trying to banish “intemperate discussion…invective, sarcasm, personality, and the like,” they never seek to punish this kind of speech unless it is used against “the prevailing opinion.” Therefore, no one notices or objects when the advocates of the dominant opinion are rude or uncivil or cruel in their denunciations of their detractors. Why shouldn’t their opponents be equally free to show their disdain for the dominant opinion in the same way? Further, Mill warned, it always will be the ruling orthodoxy that gets to decide what is civil and what is not, and it will decide that to its own advantage.
- New York Times Disappoints, PDF, 37.9 KB , The Huffington Post