It's Time to Junk the Double Standard on Free Speech

Campus censorship came mostly from the Left before September 11. And the big media were not interested.

It made news when hecklers booed Sacramento Bee publisher Janis Besler Heaphy so loudly and long—for suggesting that the government had gone too far in curbing civil liberties since September 11—that she could not finish her December 15 commencement speech at California State University (Sacramento). "Many interpret it as a troubling example of rising intolerance for public discourse that questions the nation's response to the September 11 terror attacks," reported the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times and other major newspapers weighed in with similar articles. ABC News' Nightline did a special report.

Another burst of publicity—and more worries about threats to First Amendment rights—attended the University of New Mexico's reprimand of professor Richard Berthold for opening his September 11 history class with what he later admitted to be a "stupid" remark: "Anyone who can blow up the Pentagon gets my vote." Berthold also received death threats. (See p. 188.)

It's nice to see the media showing some concern for the freedom of speech. But where have they been during the past two decades of efforts coming from the politically correct Left—and especially from devotees of identity politics, racial preferences, and the male-bashing brand of feminism—to suppress unwelcome speech on our campuses and elsewhere? Examples:

  • Ward Connerly, the black California businessman who has campaigned across the nation to outlaw racial preferences, has been shouted down and drowned out so abusively as to cut short his remarks on at least five campuses since 1996, he recalls, including Atlanta's Emory University in 1998 and the University of Texas School of Law in 1999. The consequence, he says, is that "it totally throws you off your stride. Freedom of speech is not just being able to complete your speech, it's being able to speak without fear of personal harm being done to you.... I am not free to speak openly and honestly." College administrators, Connerly adds, "almost go out of their way to make me out as a monster, which incites the audience all the more." Taunts of "Uncle Tom" are routine and, more than once, Connerly notes, hecklers have threatened violence or announced menacingly, "We know where you live."
  • Linda Chavez, another leading critic of racial preferences, says: "I have been disinvited, harassed, shouted down, threatened, and [on one occasion] physically assaulted at campuses around the country," including the University of Northern Colorado and the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign). Chavez says that while the most-menacing hecklers appeared to be "street thugs" brought in from outside the campuses, students who join in "are being primed by the professors, being told that I'm the devil incarnate, that I want to do terrible things to Hispanics."
  • Christina Hoff Sommers, a trenchant critic of liberal feminism, was speaking as an invited panelist at a November 1 conference on preventing substance abuse, organized by the Health and Human Services Department, when some officials, academics, and others took offense at her doubts about a program called "Girl Power." A department official named Linda Bass interrupted and angrily ordered Sommers to stop talking about Girl Power. Later, Sommers said, Fordham University psychology professor (and paid department consultant) Jay Wade told Sommers, "Shut the f— up, bitch," amid mocking laughter from the crowd. Sommers, effectively silenced, left. "As Stanley Kurtz pointed out in National Review," Sommers notes, "if Catharine MacKinnon or Carol Gilligan had been treated that way in a government meeting, it would have been reported." Very widely.

    But none of these efforts to silence Connerly, Chavez, and Sommers by heckler's veto has ever been reported in any national newspaper, as far as I can find, excepting some coverage in the conservative Washington Times, a few opinion columns, Wall Street Journal editorials, and a passing mention of Connerly's complaint deep in The New York Times. Nor have the national media paid much attention to the pervasive use of speech codes to chill politically incorrect expression on campus. They have likewise ignored the long-running epidemic of thefts of campus newspapers for carrying politically incorrect commentary or advertisements.

    "University PR and spin has led too many of the media into a terrible double standard" in dealing with such heckler's vetoes and other forms of censorship, says Thor L. Halvorssen, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education Inc. (FIRE). "When it's a conservative [being shouted down], the university will downplay this as a free speech protest, and the media will agree."

    The Philadelphia-based FIRE was created two years ago by Boston civil liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate and University of Pennsylvania professor Alan Charles Kors to protect free speech and other liberties on the nation's campuses. And Halvorssen seethes with the same passionate indignation in denouncing censorial efforts coming from the political Right as those from the Left. But before September 11, he says, the campus censorship came mostly from the Left. And the big media were not interested.

    "Close to three-quarters of the colleges and universities, private and public, have speech codes," Halvorssen stresses. "They are applied selectively, with a double standard depending on your blood and culture. I've never heard of a case of anyone being suspended or fired or expelled for insulting a born-again Christian. On a college campus, Andres Serrano's photograph of a crucifix in urine, titled Piss Christ, is a work of art. Immerse a photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. in urine, and the sky would fall and the entire school would be put through sensitivity training. There is also a ferocious assault on due process and fairness on campus."

    Administrators mete out discipline for offending remarks, for other alleged "harassment," and even for disputed charges of date rape with no semblance of a fair hearing. "We hear a lot of people talking about military tribunals," Halvorssen notes. "We have the equivalent on campus.... I see this stuff on a daily basis, and it is a real struggle to get it into the media. Speech codes, thought reform, due process—where have these folks been?"

    Since September 11, with leftist critics of the war against terrorism complaining of efforts to intimidate and punish them both on campus and elsewhere, the media have paid a bit more attention—although, Halvorssen says, "it's the equivalent of reporting on how many people are getting into the boats rather than reporting that the Titanic is sinking." The coverage has also been more balanced, if only because it would be hard to chronicle the punitive measures against anti-war leftists and Islamists without noticing that, on the campuses, efforts to silence forcefully hawkish statements deemed offensive by Muslims seem about as common.

    The reporting on the Berthold "blow up the Pentagon" case, for example, has been paralleled by extensive coverage of a case at Orange Coast College in California in which Professor Kenneth Hearlson was suspended for 11 weeks without a hearing and threatened with dismissal after four Muslim students complained that he had called them terrorists and murderers in class. When other students produced tape-recordings proving this charge to be false, the college reprimanded Hearlson anyway, for accusing Muslims in general of condoning terrorism against Israel.

    Meanwhile, the University of South Florida is seeking to fire Sami Al-Arian—a tenured Palestinian professor of computer science who is suspected (but not formally accused) of links to Islamic extremists—for courting publicity (amid dozens of death threats) about his views and controversial past. On the other end of the spectrum, a library assistant at UCLA was suspended for a week without pay for calling Israel an "apartheid state" in an e-mail. An Ethiopian student at San Diego State University was warned that he could be suspended or expelled for "harassment" after he had confronted and criticized a group of Saudi students for celebrating the destruction of the World Trade Center. And so on.

    Many campus administrators, notes Halvorssen, bend according to "where the political winds are blowing." And now that some of the winds are blowing against the Left, even on a lot of campuses, the left-liberal Nation sees the danger. "The last generation's wave of campus speech codes and anti-harassment policies," wrote David Glenn in December, "may have done more to suppress freedom than to remedy injustice in any meaningful way—and it may be only now, after September 11, that the full costs will become apparent."

    The rediscovery, by some in the media and the Left, of the case for free speech makes FIRE's Halvorssen optimistic about the future. But will politically powerful conservatives—some of whom have become First Amendment stalwarts while seeing their own oxes gored by campus censors—prove equally selective in their devotion to free speech? "We have to be careful," says Christina Hoff Sommers, "not to play by the rules written by the intolerant Left."