The New "Free Speech" · 12 May 2004


By Jack Langer--New Sense Magazine, April 2004

It's safe to say that the free speech movement on college campuses that originated in the 1960's is dead. It was not buried by the allegedly tyrannical professors and administrators against whom it was directed, but rather by the movement's creators and adherents themselves. Now safely ensconced in the most powerful positions throughout academia, the 1960's generation has inserted enough caveats and exceptions into the modes of acceptable debate so as to redefine the entire notion of free speech out of existence. University representatives who are absolutely fearless in denouncing the sins of their own country and government mysteriously transform into timorous milquetoasts in need of legal protections when their own ideas are subject to criticism.

The new and unimproved attitude toward free speech is readily apparent in last semester's Chronicle survey of Duke professors and administrators on this topic. All those surveyed with just a single exception cited the current climate of excessive patriotism as the foremost threat to free speech. Arts and Sciences Faculty Dean William Chafe summed up the consensus: "The greatest threat to academic freedom is those who use the flag and loyalty to the country as a basis for attacking people who dissent from American policy," he said. "When patriotism is used as a blanket rationale to inhibit free discussion and criticism then it has a chilling effect on free speech." History Department Chairman John Thompson added this harrowing explanation of the source of free speech threats: "Some of it is coming from [students] at the present moment. One of my colleagues is being harassed by a student or students who are arguing that he or she is a communist." Somehow, one never sees these arguments bandied about in the documentaries on the 1960's free speech protests-perhaps "We Demand Free Speech...Unless Someone Questions Our Patriotism Or Calls Us A Mean Name Because That Would Constitute Harassment And Create A Hostile Environment" didn't fit on the banners.

Needless to say, calling someone unpatriotic or a communist is usually a sophomoric method of argument. But unless professors are somehow prohibited from responding, then how exactly is their free speech threatened? They could simply show off their desktop bust of President Carter to prove their patriotism, or rebut criticism of their political philosophy by explaining the qualitative differences between their own Trotskyite worldview and that of the Stalinists who allegedly usurped the mantle of communism. In fact, calling someone unpatriotic or even communist is not a threat to free speech, but actually constitutes free speech itself. Besides, being labeled a communist is really quite mild compared to the expletive-laced invective this writer regularly endures, replete with accusations of fascism, jingoism, and general malevolence toward all mankind. And that's just from my immediate family.

Assistant VP Nan Nixon chimed in to The Chronicle with the obligatory denunciation of the threatening nature of the government's proposed Title VI funding reform, which would begin showing a preference in the allocation of Title VI government funds to academic programs that "reflect diverse perspectives and the full range of views" on world issues. The proposal has been condemned as a form of McCarthyism by Duke Vice Provost Gilbert Merkx, Cultural Anthropology Associate Professor Ralph Litzinger, and seemingly countless academics across the nation, who generally view the call for diverse perspectives as a sinister plot, originating with Torquemada and passed down through the ages by right-wing cabals, to enslave the entire world beginning with American academics. And who can blame the current generation of administrators and professors for believing that their free speech rights now hang in the balance? Title VI reform must inevitably dredge up the painful childhood memory of the dreaded clarion call of Joseph McCarthy-"Do you now, or have you ever, neglected to consider diverse perspectives and the full range of views on world affairs?"

So if calling a professor a communist or encouraging diverse perspectives in government-funded academic programs is not a real threat to free speech, then what is? I would propose a radical new definition of the term "free speech threat": any policy or action that actually denies a person's ability to speak freely. Such a novel definition is sure to meet tenacious resistance in academia, seeing as the above-mentioned episodes do not meet the new standard. But perhaps with some research, we can find some examples that do.

For instance, while giving a speech at Rutgers, Israeli Minister and former Soviet political prisoner Nathan Sharansky had a pie smashed in his face by a pro-Palestinian activist. This would qualify as a threat to free speech, as it's nearly impossible to pronounce the words "terrorism," "selfdefense," or even "Arafat" when your mouth is involuntarily stuffed with a meringue tart. Israeli Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has had two college speeches cancelled for security reasons; one at Berkeley, where hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists barricaded the gate leading to the speaking venue, and one at Concordia University, where pro- Palestinian activists occupied the venue, rioted, and fought with police officers attempting to evict them. These would qualify as free speech threats, as it's hard to speak if, well, you're prevented from speaking. For the same reason, the free speech rights of U.S. Institute of Peace board member and pro-Israeli scholar Daniel Pipes were threatened when his entire lecture at Berkeley was continually disrupted by dozens of chanting, screaming, and jeering pro-Palestinian protesters, entire rows of whom were forcefully ejected in an unsuccessful attempt to restore order. It's almost as if there's a pattern here, although some Duke professors have yet to catch on.

The speech codes that have proliferated throughout academia are ipso facto threats to free speech, but none of the surveyed professors thought they were important enough to mention. A good example of the repressive nature of these codes can be seen in the one that was recently rescinded at Shippensburg University after the school was sued by the FIRE free speech foundation. The code had banned speech or conduct that "annoys, threatens, or alarms a person or group," because, of course, no one can study when they're part of an annoyed group. "Sexual innuendo, suggestive comments, insults, sexual propositions, (and) humor/jokes about sex or gender-specific traits" were placed off-limits, thus protecting the campus from rogue stand-up comics. "Suggestive or insulting sounds, leering, whistling, [and] obscene gestures" were likewise prohibited, which effectively banned any menacing construction workers from visiting the campus.

Similar college speech codes are so widespread that the Education Department's Civil Rights Office published a circular last year reminding college administrators that students' free speech rights should not be violated by speech codes hidden within anti-discrimination regulations. Just last month, the national college judicial administrators' Association for Student Judicial Affairs adopted a resolution encouraging universities to review their regulations to ensure students' free speech rights are not unduly constrained. This was a peculiar development, since this organization is comprised of the exact kinds of administrators who draft and enforce speech codes. Thus administrators are warning that they themselves may be threatening students' free speech rights. One wonders if they'll apply a new speech code against themselves to rectify the problem.

None of the prelates surveyed by The Chronicle on free speech threats were perturbed enough to mention the 2001 incident at Berkeley in which Dan Flynn, who had the temerity to author a book arguing that convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal is actually guilty, was shouted down during a speaking engagement, after which a diverse mob of pro-Mumia militants stole copies of his book that were for sale at the lecture and burned them- America's first Book Burning for Tolerance. The persistent theft of conservative college newspapers and those that ran David Horowitz's anti-slavery reparations ad, including the Brown Daily Herald, did not warrant any remark from the Duke faculty, and neither did the gagging of conservative columnist and fellow North Carolina professor Michael Adams, who was banned by his own department at UNCW from discussing his columns in front of other professors who find them "offensive."

The Chronicle respondents offered no opinion about recent attempts by numerous colleges to prohibit students from protesting affirmative action by sponsoring satirical bakesales in which brownies or cookies are sold at different prices depending upon the race of the buyer. One would think the bakesale at the University of Colorado at Boulder would have warranted some commentary. There, the University banned the planned event, then relented when it was about to be sued by FIRE, which argued that CU's claim that the bakesale was racially discriminatory was undermined by the school's own embrace of reverse discrimination in its admissions policies. So CU allowed the bakesale to proceed- provided organizers adopted the university's own farcical obfuscation of its racial policies; that is, that race would only be used as an undefined "plus factor" in determining the price of the cookies. Students who supported the school's inequitable admissions policies could not tolerate the same principles being adopted in a satirical protest, so they physically blocked access to the protest, vandalized the booth, stole the cookies, and tore down the protest signs.

Fortunately, at Duke we have not seen any rioting against pro-Israeli speakers, and the Office of Institutional Equity has not yet added book burnings to its annual program of multicultural events. But the overall state of free speech in academia is not healthy, and in many respects free speech is actually more limited on campuses than in society as a whole. Instead of forcefully speaking out against the actual institutional and even physical constraints on free speech throughout academia, Duke professors, when queried, decry nebulous attitudes and innocuous proposals that present no threat whatsoever to their right to free speech. They may not like Title VI reform or being called unkind names, but the only thing that is really being threatened here is their own psychic serenity. Devotees of the original free speech movement did not qualify their advocacy of free speech with a miasma of exceptions that would actually result in speech codes, nor did they seek to place themselves beyond the pale of open criticism by resorting to apocryphal claims of intimidation. So I'll end this column with a statement that I've never uttered in my entire life-things were better in the 1960's.

Jack Langer is a student at Duke University. New Sense Magazine in a publication of the Duke Conservative Union.