More Commentary on ‘New York Times’ Piece
June 29, 2007
by Emily Guidry
Still, 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.
Accept for the sake of argument that the treatment of the newspaper should turn on whether the problem here was the “offensive language” that could be subject to punishment (“ghettos” and “zoological preserve”) rather than the controversial ideas that should not (the college should not encourage students to separate themselves by race). The distinction seems somewhat tenuous to me in the first place, but especially so here as the precise words in question were being used for a rhetorical point and not with an intention to insult or harass fellow students. But let’s set that aside and accept the premise that offensive language can be punished (as opposed to offensive ideas) and that in fact the language used here was reasonably offensive. In fact, it does appear that there were some other egregious facts that were omitted from the Times article and for which the newspaper actually apologized, so I am not intending to defend the content of the publication here.If this distinction between language and ideas is the premise, however, then Berger’s argument quickly descends into confusion.
Again we see Berger’s confusion. The objection to Imus was actually his use of derogatory language and which was used simply to insult and ridicule. But the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case was premised on the idea that the message was inappropriate for school, not that the language was offensive.Again, this whole discussion is predicated on taking as given Berger’s distinction between abusive language on one hand and “offensive” ideas on the other. But if that is a distinction that is supposed to have analytical force, it is important to understand what exactly it means.
The paper was de-funded and shut down for a year after publishing a piece criticizing the school’s funding of special “social centers” for minority and gay students. But because the paper was eventually allowed to start publishing again—the following year—the Vassar case is presented as one in which “[u]ltimately, free speech was respected.”Sorry, but shutting down a paper for a year is not a benign event, and it is certainly not one in which we can say “free speech was respected.” If Homeland Security shut down the Times for a year after exposing ways that we track terrorist financing, I’m sure they’d understand my position on this.