Burning the Cookies: SMU wrong to halt ‘affirmative action sale’

By September 26, 2003

Famed First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams told a national group of editorial writers last week that threats to the First Amendment these days come more often from the left than the right. It was a provocative statement from Mr. Abrams, himself a man of the left. Yesterday’s action by Southern Methodist University seems to back it up.

On Wednesday, SMU officials shut down an "affirmative action bake sale" sponsored by Young Conservatives of Texas. It was a theatrical form of political protest, in which the group sold pastries whose prices were determined by the ethnicity or gender of potential customers. Women and racial minorities could buy cookies at a discount, but white males had to pay full price. The intent was to send a message that affirmative action is an unjust form of discrimination.

Not everyone appreciated the protest. Two African-American students who didn’t like the message filed discrimination complaints with the university. "They were arguing that affirmative action was solely based on race," fumed sophomore Matt Houston. Another black student, junior Kambira Jones, said, "I felt they were attempting to make Hispanics and blacks feel inferior." Campus security shut down the bake sale after 45 minutes. "This was not an issue about free speech," student center director Tim Moore told this newspaper. "It was really an issue where we had a hostile environment being created that was potentially volatile."

This is exactly wrong, and SMU officials ought to be ashamed of themselves. If you have students threatening violence over a political protest, you send campus security in to protect the free speech rights of the protesters. You don’t deny the protesters their right to make their opinion heard. True, the Supreme Court famously held that one doesn’t have a First Amendment right to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater, but that’s not remotely what the bake sale at SMU amounted to. SMU owes the Young Conservatives an apology. Closing down of the bake sale sends a terrible message to students: If you don’t like the ideas at a political protest, you can get school authorities to gag the protesters by threatening violence.

As for Mr. Houston and Ms. Jones, they need to learn that no one in this country has the right not to be offended. If they don’t care for the message, they are entitled to ignore it. Or to hold a protest of their own. The answer to speech you oppose is more speech, not the silencing of your opponents.

The college experience is about exposure to new ideas, about challenging one’s preconceived notions, about learning how to think and debate. It is not a nursery school where students are to be guarded against ideas and expressions that upset them. Mr. Houston and Ms. Jones may not like it, but in a free and open society, that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

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Schools: Southern Methodist University