Rutgers Forces Students to Protest Against the First Amendment · 21 November 2004

By Paul Mulshine--The Star Ledger--11/22/04

Every few years, it seems, I find myself writing about some assault on free speech at Rutgers.

The first such incident occurred in 1995, when students destroyed the entire press run of a weekly publication that contained an article they disliked. The students in question were caught in the act. But their punishment consisted of little more than being told not to do it again.

A few years later, a cartoonist at the Rutgers Targum authored a comic strip that was misconstrued by minority students as a racist attack. However, instead of explaining to the students the nature of free speech -- not to mention irony -- the administration joined with them in calling for the cartoonist's head.

This time, the victim of the campus activists is the Medium, a weekly newspaper of which, coincidentally enough, I was once the editor. Back in 1974, freedom of the press was respected at Rutgers. The Medium was funded by student fees, and we students could say what they wanted.

The Medium is no longer the weekly newspaper of Livingston College. It has evolved into a campus-wide publication funded by student fees at Livingston College and Rutgers College. It is no longer a newspaper but instead an entertainment weekly. It carries a wide range of entertainment coverage and satire, much of it either sophomoric, tasteless or both. The editor is a Rutgers college junior from Scotch Plains named Mike Stanley.

When I spoke with him yesterday, I found Stanley to be a kindred spirit. "College is basically for everyone to have an open mind and mature," he told me. To that end, he said, "We print what we get."

"We print things that are sent from all over the university," Stanley said. "Sometimes people get real upset."

Recently it was the turn of the people at Douglass College to get real upset. Some students at that all-female college didn't like the way women were portrayed in the Medium. In a free society, people who get upset about things they read should be encouraged not to read things that upset them. But this is Rutgers. Students are not only encouraged to protest the free-speech rights of others; they get college credit for it.

As part of a required "activism" project, students in a class called "Woman, Culture and Society" decided to petition for the Medium to be banned from campus. If you are a student of the First Amendment, as I am, you will note that such a ban would be in violation of the Constitution. Nonetheless, the students set up a table on campus and began gathering signatures on a petition. Stanley and a few other editors went to Douglass to find out what the women were so worked up about.

"One of the women said she was upset that we had pictures of nude women in the paper," he said. He pointed out that there were some nudes in the Douglass newspaper, the Caellian, as well as lesbian erotic writing. But the women weren't calling for the Caellian to be suppressed.

"When I found out this was part of a class, I thought, 'How can a teacher be encouraging something that is against the Constitution?'"

Good question. I put it to Barbara Balliet, acting director of the women's studies department at Douglass.

"That's not what they're getting credit for," Balliet responded. She agreed that a ban on distribution would be unconstitutional, "but in the process of trying to do this thing which they think they can do, they will learn they can't do it," she said.

If that sounds a bit post-modern to you, consider Balliet's reaction to what happened a few days after the anti-Medium demonstration.

The weekly run of the Medium was set out for distribution on all the New Brunswick campuses. "I received a call from an editor and he asked if there was a problem with the printing," said Stanley. "He was at a spot where we put 800 papers and they were all gone."

It was the same all over the campus. Of the 6,000 Mediums printed, about 5,000 were stolen. University officials assured me that this time around they are taking the theft seriously. Campus police are busy tracking down the thieves.

But was the paper even stolen?

"I don't even know that they're stolen," Balliet told me. "Do you have evidence that they're stolen?"

"Are you saying the Medium people made it up?" I asked.

"The investigation has not been concluded," she said.

Fortunately, the administration seems to be taking a slightly less deconstructionist approach to the disappearance of the newspapers. Rutgers spokesman Sandy Lanman assures me that this time around if the miscreants are caught they will be prosecuted under the college judicial code.

"Hopefully, this will lead to a constructive dialogue," Lanman told me.

No, hopefully it will lead to felony indictments. As a former Medium editor, I can assure you that a print run costs more than some cars I have owned. If a college kid stole my car, I'd want to see him thrown into the county jail. I can't see why things should be any different for kids who steal a newspaper.

But then I've been away from Rutgers for quite a while.