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Jewish World Review March 27, 2001 / 3 Nissan, 5761

John Leo

John Leo
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Consumer Reports

Ivy League therapy

Free speech and hurt feelings collide at Brown -- CONTROVERSIES on the modern campus tend to follow a rigid story line:

1. Brownshirt activity erupts (speakers prevented from speaking, newspapers stolen and/or burned, editorial offices or dean's offices trashed).

2. The administration says quietly that this is not a good thing. Or it mumbles indecisively that two great ideals are in conflict: diversity and free expression.

3. Protesters and half the faculty take an impassioned pro-brownshirt stance, arguing that the so-called offense was an understandable reaction to hate speech and great psychic injury. They refer here to the pain of being exposed to ideas they don't agree with. If thousands of papers have been stolen so that nobody can read them, at least four boneheaded professors will announce triumphantly that you can't steal free papers.

4. The school administration switches into its therapy mode and talks about the insensitivity that provoked the brownshirt eruption. A small and veiled reference to free speech is allowable at this point, but the main emphasis is on feelings and the need to protect them from hurtful expression. The administration insists that the wounded feelings of the perpetrators need the caring attention of the whole university.

This scenario unfolded as scripted at Brown University after the student newspaper, the Daily Herald, ran an ad by conservative author David Horowitz. In sometimes provocative and pugnacious language, the ad denounced the idea of paying reparations to the descendants of American slaves. "We certainly don't reject advertising on its political content," said the editor in chief, Brooks King. "It's disgraceful not to run an ad because people on your campus are going to disagree with it." Protesters demanded that the money charged for the ad be turned over to them, but the editors said no. So protesters stole 4,000 copies of the newspaper and replaced them with fliers charging the editors with the serious campus offense of insensitivity. They also tried to break into the Herald office to destroy the remaining copies of that day's paper.

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 they felt the paper attacked students 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 is 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 deepful 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. Attempts to portray the ad as a case of racial assault instead of a free-speech issue are false and dangerous, he argued: 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. Meanwhile it is not clear that anyone will be punished for destroying the papers.

Straightforward defenses of free speech are now rare on a campus like Brown's. "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 cofounder of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group 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 assault, intellectual harassment, and nontraditional 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 campus 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 administrators 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.

JWR contributor John Leo's latest book is Incorrect Thoughts : Notes on Our Wayward Culture. Send your comments by clicking here.


03/20/01: Hold that conscience
03/12/01: The no-speech culture
03/05/01: The 'transgendered' boom
02/27/01: Lovely monsters
02/20/01: When perfectly reasonable principles are carried too far
02/13/01: Bill and Hill are pills
02/06/01: Partner hopping
01/30/01: Sensitivity police
01/22/01: Found in the White House dumpster on Jan. 20, 2001
01/16/01: New slogan belies what the Army really is
01/08/01: The black dissent
01/03/01: The year's best quips on life, politics – and golf
12/19/00: Supreme confusion
12/11/00: Racial rhetoric conveniently ignores election facts
12/05/00: Savage fantasy
11/27/00: Victims of the year get the recognition they deserve
11/20/00: It's a chad, chad, chad, chad world
11/13/00: The election rhetoric is running much too high
11/07/00: How yesterday's hero becomes tomorrow's heel
10/30/00: Would Bush's Supreme Court picks make a difference?
10/24/00: Yankees, go home!
10/17/00: Un-American activity?
10/10/00: A tempest in an ink pot
10/03/00: The Al Gore quiz
09/26/00: The sleeper effect
09/19/00: Baby-saving made easy
09/12/00: Line between reporting and editorializing continues to blur
09/05/00: In the key of F
08/29/00: Hollywood connection
08/22/00: Some friendly advice to the GOP
08/15/00: You can't make this up
08/08/00: The niceness strategy
08/01/00: When rules don't count
07/25/00: Anti-male bias increasingly pervades our culture
07/18/00: Banned in Boston
07/12/00: What Jacoby had to deal with!
07/11/00: Will boys be boys?
07/05/00: Partial-sense decision
06/27/00: Attitude toward death penalty gets in the way of facts
06/20/00: Double troubles
06/13/00: Fools paradise
06/06/00: Accidental conspirator
05/30/00: Faking the hate
05/23/00: Was it law or poetry?
05/16/00: Here, there and everywhere, people have gone bonkers
05/09/00: Tufts evangelicals are punished for acting on their beliefs
05/02/00: Elian's opera isn't over until nearly everyone sings
04/25/00: All the news that fits: The media serve up many stories from a standard script
04/19/00: Those darned readers: The gap between reporters and the general public is huge
04/05/00: Census sense and nonsense
03/29/00: Hollywood message films leave no room for other views
03/22/00: The Vatican confesses, but is it enough?
03/14/00: Watch what you say: The left can no longer be counted on to defend free speech
03/07/00: McCain's malleable messages
03/01/00: Bush's appearance at Bob Jones U. will dog him all the way
02/23/00: 'Multi-millionaire' show is new evidence we're insane

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