‘New York Times’ Disappoints

By on June 27, 2007

I am, to say the least, disappointed by Joseph Berger’s column in The New York Times today concerning Evan Maloney’s film “Indoctrinate U” and free speech on campus in general. I have been corresponding with Joe for several weeks, and even had lunch with him this past Friday. I had hoped that after such extensive interaction, I had demonstrated to him that a serious and ongoing free speech problem exists on campus. I also hoped that I had convinced him that taking student fee funding away from a student newspaper for printing a controversial article is censorship. Unfortunately, I was wrong.
 
As for the article, I don’t know which is worse: that Berger uses the single example of Vassar College’s handling of a controversial article as a tool to refute the idea that there is a serious censorship problem on campus, or that he chose to praise the outcome of a case in which the school did, in fact, punish a student publication for what would be clearly protected speech outside Vassar’s gates.
 
It’s worth quickly reviewing the case to understand my disappointment in Berger’s column. Back in 2005, The Imperialist, a publication of Vassar’s Moderate, Independent and Conservative Alliance (MICA), published an opinion piece criticizing what the anonymous author perceived as the balkanization of campus along the lines of race and sexual orientation. The article read:
How is diversity achieved when those students are voluntarily confining themselves to ghettos of the ALANA [African, Latino, Asian and Native American] Center and Blegen House [“A lesbian and gay center for the study of social change”]? I find the objective of diversity to be utterly meritless, suggesting that our colleges should become some zoological preserve in some paternalistic attempt [to] benefit our ‘non diverse’ students….
While it’s understandable that students might be upset by this article, one could easily argue that the central point expressed here—that students should not be encouraged to divide into race- and orientation-based enclaves—is in fact anti-racist and egalitarian. However, Berger presumed throughout my interview that the article was simply hurtful and of little redeeming value.
 
In today’s column, Berger sums up the situation thusly:
[S]tudents complained that the language was insulting and called for banning The Imperialist. For weeks, the issue was debated by the student association, which finances the publication. Ultimately, the group withheld its money for one year and publication was suspended.
Withholding money is most certainly punishment. And any journalist should recognize that suspending a newspaper is a drastic step. Nonetheless, Berger overlooks the disturbing ramifications of The Imperialist’s punishment, content instead to praise Vassar’s student body for responding “without violence”:
What was notable was that Vassar, a college of 2,360 students founded in the 19th century on progressive ideals—and a place where conservatives remain a distinct minority—hashed out the matter without violence and did not trash or burn newspapers as has happened at other campuses.
While I can think of few things more chilling than employing violence, theft and destruction to suppress unpopular opinions, lauding students—as Berger does here—simply for not resorting to such illegal, illiberal and immoral tactics is stunning. The bottom line is that a student newspaper criticized the polarization of students by race and orientation—and, for doing so, the newspaper lost funding and was suspended for a year. Exactly how is that an acceptable outcome at an American liberal arts university?
 
And then we come to the clincher. Berger writes:
Vassar deserves credit because, as students explained, the dispute was not focused on whether The Imperialist could argue that a center exclusively for minority students fragmented the community; it was over whether the language used to express the idea was offensive.
This blows me away. So, according to Berger, the problem wasn’t the viewpoint, it was the provocative language used to express the viewpoint. Apparently unwittingly, then, Berger is making one of censorship’s most basic arguments, relied on by censors the world over for centuries. As we point out in FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech On Campus:
In terms of censorship and its justifications, the arguments of power rarely have changed, especially in societies that believe themselves free. Public officials in such nations have openly supported the ideal of free expression for centuries, but so many of those same officials also have worked to undermine the very freedom they claim to support. In his classic treatise, On Liberty (1859), the English philosopher John Stuart Mill noted that while many people claim to believe in “free speech,” in fact just about everyone has his or her own notions of what speech is dangerous, or worthless, or just plain wrong—and, for those reasons, undeserving of protection.
[…]
Mill addressed one of the major rationales for imposing constraints on free speech on campuses today, namely that speech should be “temperate” and “fair.” Mill observed that while people may claim they are not trying to ban others’ opinions but merely trying to banish “intemperate discussion…invective, sarcasm, personality, and the like,” they never seek to punish this kind of speech unless it is used against “the prevailing opinion.” Therefore, no one notices or objects when the advocates of the dominant opinion are rude or uncivil or cruel in their denunciations of their detractors. Why shouldn’t their opponents be equally free to show their disdain for the dominant opinion in the same way? Further, Mill warned, it always will be the ruling orthodoxy that gets to decide what is civil and what is not, and it will decide that to its own advantage.
As Mill made clear nearly 150 years ago, an exception to free speech that only bans speech deemed “offensive” is an exception that entirely swallows the rule. Berger doesn’t recognize this fact, however. He instead decides that Vassar “deserves credit” for its censorship.
 
As for using Vassar as the sole counterpoint to “Indoctrinate U’s” presentation of the illiberal academy, Berger cannot claim that he did not have enough examples. At his request, I sent him links to our entire case archive, our 2006 report on speech codes, summaries of our cases at Glendale Community College, Marquette University, SUNY Fredonia, Washington State University, the University of New Hampshire, and Hampton University, as well as our letter to Mayor Bloomberg and details about the Tufts case.
 
Perhaps most relevant to his column, I sent Berger links to and short explanations of the pertinent Supreme Court cases: Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth and Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. Taken together, these cases demonstrate that Vassar’s decision to withdraw funding from a student newspaper because of its provocative language would be considered unconstitutional at a public college.
 
Despite all of this information, my major contribution to the piece seems to be that I “acknowledged that campus freedom of expression has improved since the low points of the 1990s.” This is my opinion, but I also said: (1) that the situation on campus with regards to speech is actually worse than it appears in “Indoctrinate U”; (2) that speech codes are paradoxically more common than ever; and (3) that I think that the improvement I refer to has been in no small part the result of the attention FIRE and our co-founders Alan Charles Kors and Harvey Silverglate have been able to bring to the problem on campus.
 
So, yes, I am disappointed. I enjoyed meeting Joe Berger, I liked him, I appreciated his interest in FIRE’s issues, but it seems that after spending hours getting him information about the very serious problems on campus, he left our meeting on Friday believing exactly what he believed when he came into the meeting—the problem on campus just ain’t that bad. It’s a shame, too. FIRE could use the help of the Gray Lady in fighting campus censorship, but apparently we’ll have to keep waiting.

Schools: Vassar College