When speech isn't free

Posted: Mar 26, 2001 12:00 AM
Pity the students at Brown University. They're caught in a crossfire between students who steal student newspapers that print things they don't like and students who demand the right to read and decide for themselves. What ignited the civil war was an advertisement in the Brown Daily Herald that set out 10 reasons against reparations to black Americans for the slavery of their ancestors. David Horowitz, a onetime '60s radical who's a conservative now and who edits Heterodoxy, a magazine that often lampoons political correctness on campus, placed the ad and has become a moving target for the narrow-minded. He knows how to make people mad. This particular ad is in the honorable tradition of college debate, operating on the idea that the best way to get attention is to get somebody's goat. Mr. Horowitz makes his points in a punchy way, designed to stimulate spirited rebuttal. Not only does the ad state the obvious, that there's "no single group clearly responsible for the crime of slavery," but it goes for the goat by suggesting that "reparations have already been paid ... in the form of welfare benefits and racial preferences." These are fighting words for students who don't think that way, but who fail to see argument as an opportunity to show off an ability to make serious counter-arguments with verbal virtuosity and intellectual intensity. Many students - and their teachers, who ought to know better - merely get their feelings hurt and demand silence from those who disagree with them. "This racist attack on black students sets a very dangerous precedent," Kenneth Knies, a teaching assistant in the Afro-America Studies Department, told the Brown Daily Herald. "I have talked to students who told me that they can't perform basic functions like walking or sleeping because of this ad." (Walking and chewing gum at the same time, as in Lyndon Johnson's famous putdown of Gerald Ford, would surely be out of the question.) Nevertheless, a coalition of students against the ad, perhaps walking in their sleep, stole nearly 4,000 copies of the newspaper. They described their crime as "a symbolic act of civil disobedience." But this was civil disobedience in the sandbox, of a sort that Martin Luther King, who invited arrest, would never have recognized. If seriously into civil disobedience, the students would have chained themselves to the newspaper boxes, willing to suffer the consequences. Instead, they hid behind excuses: "We didn't really do anything wrong, because you can't steal a paper that's given away free." Say what? One outraged defender of speech wrote a letter to the editor of the Daily Herald: "Martin Luther King didn't write 'Letter from a Birmingham Starbucks.'" Other letter writers called the protesters "spineless wussies" and "elitist self-centered poseurs." But if David Horowitz is not exactly the Mario Savio of the right, spearheading a Free Speech Movement for the new millennium, he has exposed the hang-tough editors of college newspapers, as hanging tough is defined in modern academia, as cowardly lions of capitulation. Editors at Harvard, Columbia and the University of Virginia refused to run the ad, and the editor of the Daily Californian at Berkeley offered an abject apology to his readers for running it. These kids, alas, are our journalists for tomorrow. But so, too, is Julie Bosman, the editor of the University of Wisconsin Badger Herald in Madison, who not only ran the ad, but boldly defended her position in her newspaper and on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. She stands out in sharp contrast to the breed of editors at elite colleges who respond to criticism with cowering repentance. The saddest example of this cowardice under fire is at the Harvard Crimson, which published not one but two apologies for printing a satirical column teasing Asian students for acting like a "swarm of clones." The offending author was a student editor who mocks himself "as a self-hating Asian," but if his irony was over the line, the Crimson editors' self-abasement, scolding themselves as "insensitive," was over the top. "All successful newspapers," said H.L. Mencken, "are ceaselessly querulous and bellicose." Well, that was a long time ago in a land far away, when the best campus newspapermen/women were encouraged to live on the cutting edge of controversy and intellectual dissent. Today it takes an old fogy like David Horowitz, moving from left to right, to teach that lesson to unwilling pupils.