Free Speech on Campus, Depending on Who’s Speaking

In what is yet more evidence that universities have become, at least where campus free speech is concerned, as Harvard’s wise Abigail Thernstrom has described them, “islands of repression in a sea of freedom,” the University Of California, San Diego has been undergoing collective apoplexy over some incendiary racial slurs made by students involved in an off-campus fraternity party and in a subsequent broadcast from the school’s radio station. The discovery of a noose and a roughly-fashioned Ku Klux Klan hood on campus only helped stoke tensions and inflame rage at the perceived racism.

Coinciding with celebrations for Black History Month, the February 15th ghetto-themed party was advertised on Facebook as the “Compton Cookout,” with the suggested dress involving over-sized T-shirts, gold chains, and other stereotypical wear of “thuggish” black men; women were advised to dress like “ghetto chicks” and be ostentatious, boorish, and combative. More outrage was added to the evolving controversy when days later Kris Gregorian, editor of satirical student publication the Koala, with a long history of insulting minority groups, impoliticly suggested on the school’s TV station that members of UCSD’s Black Student Union who loudly protested the party’s theme were “ungrateful niggers.”

Though black, Hispanic, Muslim and many white students and administrators immediately leveled blame at white fraternity members, Koala writers, and other purported racists lurking on campus, it turns out that a comedian with the improbable (not to mention derogatory) stage name of Jiggaboo Jones, an African-American himself, had actually orchestrated the party for some 250 people as part of a promotional event, something he had done at other West Coast locations. But the damage had been done, and self-righteous members of the UCSD campus stampeded on one another to profess their outrage, indignation, and shock at the loutish behavior of and “state of emergency” created by a small group of students involved at a private party held off-campus.

Members of the Black Student Union wasted no time in drafting a 6-page memo for school officials (who eagerly embraced them), in which they itemized a veritable encyclopedia of demands by which, it was felt, the racist climate could be modified, with the “aim to move the university past hurtful incidents and improve the campus climate by enhancing diversity on the campus, in the curriculum and throughout the UC San Diego community.” Cries of “institutionalized racism” and a “toxic environment” at UCSD were heard. Because the BSU felt that African-Americans were being “racially demoralized,” those demands included, among others, establishing ethnic studies programs, a “rewrite the Student Code of Conduct,” presumably meaning a speech code that would proscribe certain speech deemed inappropriate by the code’s creators, and, ominously, a mandatory “diversity sensitivity requirement for every undergraduate student.”

While calling for further investigation into the specific incidents that had sparked the outrage, and promising to identify and punish the perpetrators, embarrassed school officials also met with angry minority students, promised to increase efforts at diversity, pledged more minority faculty hiring and student enrollment, set up psychological counseling facilities, met with community leaders and state officials, and even flew in Berkeley’s law school dean, Christopher Edley, to help arbitrate the situation. The president of the University’s Associated Students also took the breathtakingly audacious step, with the apparent approval of school officials, of not only closing down the student TV station but freezing funding for all 33 on-campus student publications, not just the offensive Koala. The danger of racist expression meant that all expression would be curtailed—at least until a way could be found to defund the offending publication and TV station.

For Tara Sweeney, senior program officer at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a Pennsylvania-based advocacy group that defends campus speech controversies and has contacted the UCSD administration in the past and in relation to these events, the constitutional issue is very clear: Publishing or otherwise expressing “a parody, no matter how objectionable to some, is in no way tantamount to ‘harassment.’”

The hypocrisy of campus speech control is also evident at UC San Diego, since the extent to which officials will tolerate errant speech apparently depends on which group is uttering it. When white frat boys, with an evident dearth of social tact, make fun of black people—a clearly protected, “under-represented,” campus victim group―no one on campus seems to have had the slightest difficulty in denouncing the vile expressions as blatant racism—indeed, as essential hate speech that might well be criminally punishable. School administrators have not come to the defense of the Koala or its editor with the argument that the views expressed, though vile, were protected, not unlawful, speech; they also have not publicly announced, as they did in 1995 regarding another student publication, that university officials should not and can not be in the business of censoring student-run publications.

Voz Fronteriza, a UCSD Chicano-oriented student publication published by MEChA, self-described as “shamelessly leftist” and intended “to advance anti-imperialist movements and/or any struggle for the self-determination of oppressed/exploited people throughout the world,” in 1995 grotesquely cheered after the death of a Latino Immigration and Naturalization Service officer; even worse, the publication urged the murder of other Latino officials, deemed by the thoughtful editors to be “race traitors.” Interestingly, when those outrageous sentiments came to light, UCSD’s Vice Chancellor Joseph W. Watson was adamant that Voz Fronteriza, despite the odious nature of its content and the potentially “hurtful” language, had the “right to publish their views without adverse administrative action,” since, he correctly pointed out, “student newspapers are protected by the first amendment of the U.S. constitution.” Watson was even more emphatic and direct, issuing a statement that UCSD, in fact, was “legally prohibited from censuring the content of student publications,” something it apparently has forgotten since.

Nor have UCSD officials sought to suppress or even condemn other inflammatory on-campus speech when it comes from other protected minority groups. Amir-Abdel Malik-Ali, for instance, the black former Nation of Islam member, convert to Islam, and cheerleader for Hamas and Hezbollah, who has been a ubiquitous, poisonous presence on the UC Irvine campus, has also appeared at UC San Diego as a guest of the Muslim Student Association. Malik-Ali never hesitates to vilify and defame Israel, Zionists, Jewish power, and Jews themselves as he weaves incoherent, hallucinatory conspiracies about the Middle East and the West. In a February 2004 speech Malik-Ali “implied that Zionism is a mixture of ‘chosen people-ness [sic] and white supremacy’; that the Iraqi war is in the process of ‘Israelization’; that the Zionists had the ‘Congress, the media and the FBI in their back pocket.’”

Malik-Ali used a February 2005 event to proclaim that “Zionism is a mixture, a fusion of the concept of white supremacy and the chosen people . . . You will have to hear more about the Holocaust when you accuse them of their Nazi behavior,” he warned, after railing against Zionist control of the press, media, and political decisions of the American government.

Speaking from a podium with a banner reading “Israel, the 4th Reich” in May 2006, Malik-Ali referred to Jews as “new Nazis” and “a bunch of straight-up punks.” “The truth of the matter is your days are numbered,” he admonished Jews everywhere. At other of Malik-Ali’s incendiary lectures, displays and posters regularly depict the Israeli flag splattered in blood and the Star of David shown to be equating a swastika, punctuated with numerous hysterical references to a “Holocaust in the Holy Land,” “genocide,” “ethnic cleansing,” “Zionism = racism,” and the oft-repeated blood libel against Jews that “Israelis murder children.”

But tellingly, no officials in the UC system have tripped over themselves to denounce Malik-Ali’s venomous speech and shut down those organizations which sponsored it and those publications that reported about it. They did not set up counseling sessions for Jewish students who might have been “intimidated,” “harassed,” or made to feel “unsafe” on campus as a result of hearing that they were the new Nazis, that the Jewish state was the chief impediment to world peace, that Jews control the media and Washington, and that Jews, who are committing genocide on the innocent, long-oppressed Palestinians, deserve to be murdered. Campus leaders did not reach out to civic leaders and other external stakeholders to help heal the wounds that this hate speech may have caused within the Jewish student body, nor did they bring in high-profile experts who could moderate between Muslim student groups and Jewish students made to bear these oppressive attacks on their religion and people. Mandatory “sensitivity” classes were not set up so that non-Jewish students could be forced to have positive attitudes towards Israel and Jews. And Jewish students did not submit a list of demands for on-campus Jewish art galleries, Israel studies programs, more Jewish faculty, special accommodations in recruiting and applications, or campus-apologies and repentance for spewing forth hateful, insulting, and odious speech.

None of this took place precisely because campuses today have a startling double standard when it comes to who may say what about whom. Either because they are feckless or want to coddle perceived protected student minority groups in the name of diversity, university administrations are morally inconsistent when taking a stand against what they consider “hate speech,” believing, mistakenly, that only harsh expression against victim groups needs to be moderated. When other groups―whites, Christians, Republicans, heterosexuals, Jews, for example―are the object of offensive speech, no protection is deemed to be necessary.

So while campus free speech is enshrined as one of the university’s chief principles, experience shows us that it rarely occurs as free speech for everyone, only for a few. But if we want speech to be truly free, to paraphrase Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., then we have to embrace not only speech with which we agree, but also that speech with which we disagree, that speech that we hate.