John Leo

The low priority for free speech is on regular display in the relentless campaign to curb and punish anti-abortion demonstrators. The left tolerates huge buffer zones, plus limits on protest signs and leafleting, that it would never approve if the protesters were striking union members or animal-rights activists.

Thinking up new ways to gag demonstrators -- not people who block clinic entrances, just ordinary protesters -- is a minor industry here in New York. A recent New York City Council bill would make it illegal near a clinic to offer an anti-abortion leaflet to anyone who doesn't want one. The bill would also ban oral protest and protest signs within a radius of 50 feet of any abortion clinic.

Getting do-good groups interested in free speech isn't easy. After the American Society of Newspaper Editors defended the First Amendment right to burn the American flag, I sent the group a letter saying that's nice, now send me your resolution condemning all the thefts and burnings of college newspapers. The reply was full of hemming and hawing about why it was inappropriate to take such a stand. The real reason, I think, is that most of the papers being stolen were conservative ones, and ASNE is a PC-drenched group that doesn't care much about the free-speech rights of student editors it disagrees with.

Amid the campus turmoil that followed the terrorism of Sept. 11, something unusual occurred: censorship of a few speakers on the left. Janis Besler Heaphy, for example, publisher of The Sacramento Bee, wanted to deliver a commencement speech at Cal State-Sacramento about threats to civil liberties in the federal response to terrorism. But she was shouted down by yahoos. Many elite newspapers then announced that we can't have censorship on campus, provoking the obvious question: Where have they been for the past 20 years of egregious speech codes, stolen papers, disinvited speakers, defunded organizations and other anti-free-speech tactics so common on campuses?

I also noticed that the student senate at Columbia University issued a ringing endorsement of free speech. I was pleased to see such a radical change at Columbia, because the university worked overtime to prevent Dinesh D'Souza and me from speaking there in 1998. We wound up giving our talks just off-campus, with protesters shouting things like, "Ha, ha, you're outside" and carrying signs that said "Access denied -- we win."

Columbia was, of course, teaching its students to deal with dissent by suppressing it. Maybe the university has really reformed, but somehow I think there's room for doubt.

John Leo

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

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