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Jewish World Review Oct. 15, 2002 / 9 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

Nat Hentoff

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Unfree speech on college campuses


http://www.NewsandOpinion.com | Earlier this year, I spoke at the 11th Annual Hugo Black Lecture on Freedom of Expression at Wesleyan University. During my lecture, "The Twilight of Free Speech," I told students that it was Justice Hugo Black who expanded the scope and range of the First Amendment to include local and state governments, as well as the federal government.

Part of my lecture concerned the dismaying attacks on freedom of expression for more than a decade by students at many college campuses. Student newspapers, usually of a conservative bent, have been stolen in large quantities, sometimes burned. And students with dissenting viewpoints have told me they have learned to censor themselves in and out of class.

Wesleyan is a justly well-regarded university. One of my sons went there in the 1980s and was editor of the student paper, The Argus. He has fond memories of the place and had resisted this plague of political correctness on campuses that was just starting then. The extent that expressions of independent views, in public, have diminished since the 1980s at Wesleyan and other colleges was illustrated in an editorial in The Argus soon after my last lecture.

The newspaper surveyed students about the campus culture of Wesleyan. Most troubling, the editorial said, was that 32 percent of the students "feel uncomfortable speaking their opinion. ... Debate is limited to a dialogue between liberal and progressive, which has the effect of silencing any and all conservative views. When the rare conservative stance is taken, a shouting match usually results, making impossible the dialogue, which the university claims to value so highly."

In my experience -- buttressed by reports from the Student Press Law Center and The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education -- a similar survey administered at other college campuses would result in an even higher percentage of students intimidated by the chilling climate of political correctness.

I was quoted in the editorial as saying (in my Hugo Black lecture) that too many students across the nation believe they "have a constitutional right not to be offended."

The Argus editorial ended: "In our attempts to foster discussion and wrestle with issues, we have forgotten the basic liberal tenet of promoting freedom of expression. The booming voice of the left has almost completely drowned out a considerable portion of the campus's population."

But "when liberals and progressives are silenced, they decry it as ignorant and unjust."

The editor of The Argus, Bobby Zeliger -- a true upholder of the spirit of Hugo Black -- sent me a copy of the survey. Freddye Hill, the dean of the college, was quoted saying that she thinks "we need to provide more spaces where people can be honest with each other."

Michelle Rabinowitz, the chair of the American Civil Liberties Union on campus, noted, "Wesleyan and most Wesleyan students think that Wesleyan is a lot more open than it really is. I'm not sure that the students are open to diverse viewpoints other than saying that they are."

"Diversity" is a much-valued goal at colleges and universities, but its meaning is too often limited to ensuring sufficient representation of race and gender in the student body. The concept of diversity of IDEAS, however, is often far less valued.

Hill understands the wider and deeper definition of diversity, "As a community (we) need to support groups that have diverse viewpoints, viewpoints that are not commonly heard on campus, and encourage new organizations with new voices." Maybe a Hugo Black Club.

The need for that kind of diversity was inadvertently revealed in the survey by Elizabeth King of the Wesleyan Democrats. "The question is how tolerant we are of intolerance," she says. "Personally, I'm not very supportive of homophobic, racist and xenophobic opinions. Nor do I feel necessarily inclined to provide those people with a venue for their opinions."

In The Argus editorial, I was quoted as having said in my lecture that "the ultimate test of a belief in free speech should be whether it can be extended to people you hate." I, in turn, was quoting Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who also said that this principle of the First Amendment "calls for attachment more than any other."

And if freedom of thought is not honored at college campuses, how devoted to this source of all our other freedoms will its graduates be as they become influential in America's future?

At Wesleyan, however, voices are rising to keep the spirit of Hugo Black alive.


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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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