What free speech?

As the 2000-2001 academic year drew to a close, most college seniors were worrying about final exams or graduation. I was worrying about censorship. The Mad Cow, Williams College’s only humor magazine, had just been derecognized for publishing a political satire article. The article was a fake news piece about the College Council adding a “black guy” position who would receive 3/5ths of a vote.

Within the article, the explanation was that “we finally decided it was time to unify the campus by giving one minority student an unequal share in the decision-making process.”

Some were offended by the article’s charge of tokenism on campus. More were offended by the very idea that anyone would joke about such issues. Those offended complained that such things should not be allowed to be said – and the entire magazine was de-recognized.

The previous year, another Williams’ campus publication (the real deal) printed a fake WANTED ad featuring the College fire marshal, pointing at his constant confiscation of student appliances. In response, the (then) President of the College sent a letter of chastisement to the parents of every student contributor to that issue, and to the College Council in an apparent effort to influence them to remove funding.

Events like these made me start to think of Williams as an Orwellian utopia. Everything was idyllic, and so anyone who cast doubt on the perfection of the status quo must be silenced. But that wasn’t quite right. First, the problem didn’t just rest with Williams. When David Horowitz’s anti-reparations ad made its circuit of college campus newspapers, there were three typical reactions. Some college papers simply refused to publish it, such as at Harvard, Dartmouth and Columbia. Some college papers published it, and then later printed an apology/retraction, such as the Daily Californian at the University of California at Berkeley. And some college papers such as the Brown Daily Herald and University of Wisconsin Badger Herald printed it but then suffered attacks, charges of racist propaganda, or even the theft of their entire print run.

The commentary pages of newspapers are designed as a forum for controversy, their purpose being to bring forth a variety of opinions (which do not necessarily represent those of the editors) for public consideration. Campus newspapers especially have a tradition of printing a diverse range of opinions, and yet many tried to block Horowitz’s ideas from the public eye. Political satire traditionally seems to have the highest level of free-speech protection under the Constitution, so those like H.L. Mencken may open our eyes to what is questionable. Yet one piece of satire in a humor magazine was sufficient provocation to have the entire publication killed.

How is this possible? Wasn’t it just a few decades ago that college campuses seemed like the last bastion of free speech? These same liberal institutions famous for sit-ins and demonstrations, known for the open exchange of ideas, renowned for providing people with all viewpoints an opportunity to be heard, have begun silencing anyone whose opinions they don’t like.

For a while, I couldn’t figure out why yesterday’s havens of free speech had become the censorship outposts of today. And then it hit me.

I remembered that a few liberal outcries throughout the year had gained much steam, instead of being silenced.

Yet whenever anyone said something that was politically incorrect, they were told that one did not talk about such things at college, that it wasn’t appropriate. I realized that what was happening had a simple explanation: Many people don’t like to hear opinions that disagree with their own. It wasn’t about the status quo, it was about the belief system of the liberal colleges.

Forty years ago, most colleges held themselves high as defenders of free speech. The liberal underdog was given a chance to speak out against the prevailing sentiment of the time, and could point to flaws that the conservatives in charge would prefer were never discussed.

Times have changed. Nowadays, the left-winger is no longer the underdog. Most colleges are happy to provide a forum for left-wingers to expose problems in right-wing thought. However, the atmosphere has become hostile toward anyone wishing to suggest a flaw in left-wing ideology, to the point where publication of opposing beliefs can result in having one’s publication stolen or derecognized. As is too often the case, those who fought for the right to express their beliefs have attained victory, and have set to work trying to censor the rights of others to express opposing beliefs.

Once upon a time, many Democrats, especially Southerners, were conservatives who supported the status quo – it was the Republicans who were the party for change.

The Republicans fought to make their voices heard, and were eventually successful. Having attained their desired state of affairs, they began to support the new status quo. The Democrats then became the liberal party of progress, supporting the right of the little guy to speak out against the status quo. Today, the climate has shifted once again, and it is the left wing that attempts to silence the right.

If the colleges are truly liberal – not left-wing, but liberal they should realize that whenever free speech is abridged, an injustice is being done.

I am forced to dust off Voltaire’s old chestnut, “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Let campus publications once again serve as a forum for all viewpoints, and not try to limit what issues can be talked about and what sides of an issue can be expressed.