John Leo

Brown's interim president, Sheila Blumstein, called the theft "unacceptable." A great wave of protest swept through the campus denouncing the Horowitz ad as hate speech or hate assault. The Herald reported that some members of the administration expressed agreement with the claim that the ad was a racial assault. One professor said he knew students "who haven't been able to eat or sleep because the paper attacked people of color." Another professor said: "If something is free you can take as many copies as you like. This is not a free-speech issue. It's a hate-speech issue."

Blumstein seemed to back off her mild criticism of the newspaper thefts, endorsing free speech but describing the Horowitz ad as "deliberately and deeply hurtful." Responding to the pain of "members of the community who feel most hurt" must be a defining value at Brown, she said.

A stronger and clearer defense of free speech came from a student, Carl Takei, president of Brown's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. He said attempts to portray the ad as a case of racial assault were false and dangerous: The ad is "clearly a political advocacy piece, containing assertions that one might expect to hear being said by conservative senators or written in legitimate national publications." Takei warned that it would be a grave mistake to expand Brown's amorphous hate-speech code to encompass the ad.

Straightforward defenses of free speech are now rare on a campus like Brown. "This is just the latest stage of a 15-year decline in respect for free expression on college campuses," said Harvey Silverglate, a Boston lawyer and co-founder of a Philadelphia-based group, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), that often defends students from the workings of their politically correct colleges.

On many campuses, students are encouraged to think of other people's ideas and criticism as assaults. A whole vocabulary has sprung up to convert free expression into punishable behavior: hate speech, verbal conduct, verbal assault, intellectual harassment and non-traditional violence, a fancy term for stinging criticism. Universities tell students they have a right not to be harassed by hostile speech.

Well, sure. Nobody should be harassed. But the connection between harassment and speech is made so relentlessly on campuses that many students think they have a right not to be offended. Real debate fades as ordinary argument is depicted as a form of assault. The conversion of the campus into a culture of feelings makes it worse.

The feel-your-pain rhetoric of admininstrators who reward hurt feelings has the obvious effect of encouraging more students to swoon when their ideas are contradicted. In the long run, it also makes many topics too dangerous to raise. But being exposed to discomforting ideas is the price of freedom. Someone should advise college administrators to share this insight with their students.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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