John Leo
It's time for this column to announce its Sheldon Award, given annually to the university president who does the most to look the other way when free speech is under assault on campus. As all Sheldon fans know, the prize is a statuette that looks something like the Oscar, except that the Oscar shows a man with no face looking straight ahead, whereas the Sheldon shows a man with no spine looking the other way. The award is named for Sheldon Hackney, former president of the University of Pennsylvania and a modern legend in looking the other way.

College presidents who say and do nothing about newspaper thefts or unconstitutional speech codes usually make it to the Sheldon finals. But not this year. The competition was too keen. At least five colleges suffered thefts of newspapers in April 2006 alone, too many for even the most relentlessly silent president to make much headway toward a Sheldon.

In earlier years, Georgia Tech's president might have won for allowing a speech code that prohibits "denigrating" comments based on "characteristics or beliefs," as in, "You must be out of your mind to disagree with the professor." What would happen to the character of campus life if universities suddenly allowed beliefs to be challenged openly? Sad to say, it's very possible that feelings might be hurt.

John C. Hitt, president of the University of Central Florida, drew attention for his awesome silence when a student was brought up on charges for a campus Web site calling another student "a jerk and a fool." But Hitt gave up his bid for a Sheldon when FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) forcefully called his attention to the First Amendment.

Penn State president Graham Spanier caught the eye of Sheldon judges when his campus's School of Visual Arts canceled an exhibit on Palestinian terrorism because it "did not promote cultural diversity" (i.e., it irritated campus leftists and Muslims). Oddly, with the Sheldon nearly in his grasp, Spanier caved to free-speech pressure. He restored the exhibit and came out for freedom of expression. This is like a leading contender for the papacy announcing that he thinks Jesus was a fictional character.

John Leo

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

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