Baking With Fire

April 18, 2005

The enemies of campus bake sales are at it again, inflaming one another over the dire threat of cupcakes and cookies sold at different prices to whites, minorities, and women. The sales are political parody, of course, poking fun at affirmative action policies and trying to get a debate going. Campus orthodoxy holds that such policies are sacred and that any dissent, even in the form of satirical cookie prices, is illegitimate and deserving of suppression.

When members of a Republican club staged a bake sale March 21 at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich., several students said they were offended. This amounted to a powerful argument, since hurt feelings are trump cards in the campus culture. Next came the usual scramble to suppress free speech while expressing great respect for it. The normal campus method in such cases is to define free speech as narrowly as possible, while pointing to broad and vague anti-discrimination rules.Proving that muddled thinking is not confined to campuses, the Detroit Free Press weighed in with an editorial denouncing the bake sale as “tasteless” and perhaps deserving of disciplinary action. The university charged the club with a violation of the student code and threatened sanctions. The students folded under pressure from the administration and issued an apology. When the president of the group refused to back down, he was asked to resign and did. The students’ retreat is understandable, if not very courageous. The university was in effect putting them on trial for bias, with the likelihood that a notation of racial discrimination would become part of their academic record and follow them to post-college job interviews. This is a major example of a politically correct college abusing its power.In Chicago, the College Republicans at Northeastern Illinois University canceled an affirmative action bake sale after the administration warned that they would be punished if they went ahead. Dean of Students Michael Kelly announced that the cookie sellers would be in violation of university rules and that “any disruption of university activities that would be caused by this event is also actionable.” This seemed to promise that if opponents of the sale conducted a riot, the Republicans would be held responsible. The university did not understand it was dealing in viewpoint discrimination (it did not object to a satirical wage-gap bake sale run by feminists). Kelly said the affirmative action sale would be allowed if cookie prices were the same for whites, minorities, and women. So the university was willing to tolerate a bit of satire as long as all satirical content was removed.

The Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education stepped in, reminding the university that forbidding political expression is clearly unconstitutional. Under pressure from FIRE, the university backed down, issuing no public statement but allowing the bake sale. FIRE is also looking into attempts to suppress a bake sale at Eastern Washington University. In this case, an outside group of the left, the Center for Justice, threatened suit on grounds that the campus sale would violate state anti-discrimination laws.

Multiple excuses. Opponents of these bake sales will use almost any argument to shut them down. At the University of Washington, the administration said the sponsor had failed to get a food permit. At Grand Valley, the university counsel argued that the sale of a single cupcake would convert political commentary into forbidden campus commerce. At Eastern Washington, the varying prices were denounced as unfair marketing. At Texas A&M, the athletics director argued that a satirical bake sale would damage the sports teams by making it harder to recruit minority players. Apart from the complaint that opposition to affirmative action is evidence of bias, the most common tactic used against the sales is the “heckler’s veto”: Disruptions may occur, but instead of protecting the cookie sellers, the colleges decree that sales must be banned.

Campus culture is so heavily pitched against dissent that many students react viscerally to those who disagree and can’t even understand when such dissent is reasonable. David French, president of FIRE, blames the uniformity of thought on campus. He says that because the suppression of bake sales meets approval in faculty lounges, opponents are often surprised when the public notices the censorship and reacts against it. In terms of the hothouse campus culture, suppression seems normal. But the censors can’t justify in public what they do in private. The lesson for pastry rebels is to get in touch with FIRE and take the issue public as early as possible.

Download file "Baking With Fire (Part 2)"

Schools: Grand Valley State University Northeastern Illinois University Cases: Grand Valley State University: Suppression of Affirmative Action Bake Sale Northeastern Illinois University: Suppression of Affirmative Action Bake Sale