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Jewish World Review June 26, 2000 / 23 Sivan, 5760

Nat Hentoff

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Consumer Reports

Burning 'bad' ideas at college -- STORIES NOT LIKELY to have been part of this year's college graduation exercises:

Last October -- as reported by the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va. -- students at California State University at Sacramento stole 3,000 copies of the student newspaper. They were enraged because the paper, The State Hornet, had published the picture of a Hispanic man being arrested and charged with resisting arrest at a football game. There had been violent incidents at the game, including the death of a spectator.

The self-righteous censors then demanded that the paper pledge never to publish anything that showed minorities in an unfavorable light.

In recent years, students have stolen, trashed and sometimes burned quantities of campus newspapers around the country as a form of vigilante protest. A recent issue of the Student Press Law Center Report notes that since September of last year, thieves have stolen publications from nine colleges in eight states, from California to Mississippi. In April, many copies of two student publications at Yale University were stolen, and theft took place at five more colleges.

Frequently, these incidents are motivated by a contempt for diversity of speech and ideas in higher education. At prestigious Cornell University, the conservative campus paper, The Cornell Review, published a parody of ebonics -- a kind of informal black speech that some educators thought should be considered equal to standard English.

More than 200 copies of The Cornell Review were stolen. Some were thrown into trash cans and others were destroyed in a merry bonfire. There was no public criticism by members of the administration or the faculty of this transmogrification of the principle of free inquiry in the academy.

Emboldened, the vandals attacked again when The Cornell Review published an illustration by syndicated newspaper cartoonist Chuck Asay, titled "Which One of These Kills More Blacks?" There were three panels -- a Ku Klux Klan murder by fire; followers of Hitler in front of a large swastika; and a doctor about to perform an abortion in a Planned Parenthood clinic. The student-thieves who took revenge on the newspaper were mostly black and Hispanic.

Cornell's dean of students, John Ford, told me when I was reporting the first mocking of the free press on the part of students that he was not aware that any copies of the Cornell Review had been set on fire. The second time it happened, I told him I had a photograph of him standing at the burning without stopping it. He then told me he saw no reason for disciplinary action concerning this theft of more than 500 issues.

A spokeswoman for the administration, sounding as if she had been trained at the Clinton White House, called the burning "symbolic" -- adding that Cornell supports both the right to publish and the right to protest what's printed.

Last fall, I was invited to lecture at Cornell on, of all things, freedom of speech and of the press. I spoke in detail about Cornell's approval of arson and theft to shut down diversity of ideas. At a faculty lunch, a professor took me aside and said, "I'm glad you're saying these things, because I can't."

She is a tenured professor. I was not surprised, having interviewed other professors with job security at a number of campuses who are afraid to speak against assaults on conservative newspapers lest they be accused of being insensitive to black students.

The main campus newspaper, The Cornell Sun, in reporting on my lecture, quoted professor Lawrence Moore, head of the American Studies department, who had invited me. He told The Cornell Sun that in my speech, I had been mistaken about faculty silence concerning the thefts and bonfires. There had been critical comment, he said.

But the night before, when I arrived on campus, Moore told me that he had been surprised at the lack of public criticism from any of the faculty. At dinner at his home, after my lecture, two professors said they had been disappointed that there had been no faculty criticism. In my lectures, I said that someone should teach the students who burned newspapers how 'unacceptable' books were burned in bonfires in Germany in the 1930s. And, I should have added, about how the Third Reich criminalized jazz, labeling it "Jewish black rubbish."

I wrote a letter to the Cornell Sun, correcting Professor Moore. It was not published. It did appear in the Cornell Review, where I noted that Cornell's code of conduct states clearly: "The right to free expression requires respect for the rights of others."

But when I was reporting on the burning of ideas there, Barbara Krause -- Cornell's judicial administrator in charge of disciplinary action -- assured me that the theft and destruction of newspapers had not violated Cornell's code of conduct.

Cornell and a good many other colleges need courses in respect for diversity of ideas among students, faculty and the administration, including the often-distant college presidents.

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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03/03/00: The ACLU violates its principles --- yet again!
02/28/00: Still two nations?
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10/26/99: Disappeared Americans
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07/26/99: Lady Hillary and the press

© 2000, NEA