Saturday, May 12, 2007
Yesterday, I criticized an article by Neal Boortz that called for satellite radio stations to appease their would-be censors in Congress by voluntarily purging themselves of all shock jocks. Among my problems with this approach was that these stations would have to act upon the broadest possible meaning of the term "shock jock" to even be able to claim that they'd cleaned up their act: "[B]y what standards should someone be deemed a 'shock jock'? [Consider] what some leftist and religious constituencies manage to find 'offensive'..."
Well, it turns out that Tufts University, a private institution, has provided us with an excellent example of what can happen when the irrational demands of certain groups are allowed to dictate policies on what kind of speech is considered acceptable by an organization that claims to support open debate. From Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE, via Instapundit):
Today, FIRE announced the decision by a disciplinary panel at Tufts to find the conservative student newspaper, The Primary Source, guilty of "harassment" for, among other things, publishing a satirical ad that listed less-than-flattering facts about Islam during Tufts' Islamic Awareness Week. You can see the ad here, and Eugene Volokh has also published it with excellent commentary over at his blog, but, just to make sure people see the ad for themselves, I have reprinted the full text....Eugene Volokh adds the following at The Volokh Conspiracy:
So does this paint Islam in a nice light? No. Is it one-sided? Yes, but that was kind of the point. The students were responding to what they thought was a one-sided and overly rosy depiction of Islam during Islamic Awareness week. But is it unprotected harassment!? One certainly hopes not, or else "harassment" just became a truly lethal threat to free speech -- an "exception" that completely swallows the rule.
This is perhaps the most troubling and far-reaching aspect of this case. The Primary Source published a satirical ad filled with factual assertions and because this angered people it was ruled to be unprotected harassment. If what the complaining students wanted to say was that the TPS facts were wrong, then -- while this still would not be harassment -- that could have been an interesting debate. But instead, in sadly predictable fashion, the students plowed ahead with a harassment claim that, based on the hearing panel's decision, appeared not even to raise the issue of whether or not the statements in the ad were true, but turned only on how they made people feel. A panel consisting of both faculty and students found the publication guilty in flagrant abuse of what harassment case law and regulations actually say, and demonstrating total ignorance of the principles of a free society. Even in libel law (one of the oldest exceptions to the rule of free speech is that you can be punished for defaming people) truth is rightfully an absolute defense. Here, the fact that TPS printed verifiable information -- with citations -- was apparently no defense, nor was the fact that the ad concerned contentious issues of dire global importance. Such an anemic conception of free speech should chill anyone who cares about basic rights and democracy itself.
Welcome to the new freedom of speech at the new university. No, the Committee's actions don't violate the First Amendment, since Tufts is a private university. But they violate basic principles of academic freedom and public debate on university campuses, especially when the top university administrators claim to "fully recognize freedom of speech on campus." Appalling.A roundup of related posts appears at the end of another post of his on this subject.
I agree with Mr. Lukianoff that a word with the college president is in order:
Since those students and faculty obviously did not think about the ramifications of this decision, we put it to you, President Bacow: do you think the publication of factual assertions should be a punishable offense if they hurt the wrong people’s feelings, regardless of whether or not they are true? I hope he will think hard on what the U.S. would look like if that was the law of the land. It’s not a country that most of us would recognize or even want to live in. We ask again for President Bacow to live up to the best principles of a liberal university in a free society and overturn this dangerous decision.All a government can do is guarantee freedom of speech by preventing its citizens from being threatened or harmed for simply speaking their minds. But the value of this freedom depends on its being used, which requires a forum (i.e., the use of someone's property) to be effective. If private individuals do not use this freedom, and if private institutions that purport to offer forums for free speech do not understand its nature, such governmental guarantees will be for naught.
At least in the meantime, students who do not wish to endure four years of Islamic censorship have the choice of attending other universities, where the value of free inquiry is appreciated enough to enjoy more than just the lip-service of their administrations.
Today: Added last line.