Swastikas and Free Speech

April 29, 2015

By Richard Vedder at Forbes Magazine

Roughly 25 years ago, the chair of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), Frederic Andre, gave me a short tour of his building right off the Mall in Washington, D.C. I was startled to see that the main wall design in the main lobby consisted of thousands of swastikas. I believe the building predated the Nazi era, and the swastika had not taken on the sinister meaning it later assumed. The ICC was even more antiquated than the building, and within a few years it was abolished, a move Mr. Andre wholeheartedly supported. While the ICC got into lots of controversies, to my knowledge no one ever attacked the agency because of swastikas on its walls, because they clearly were not inspired by or supportive of the Nazi regime in Germany.

Times change, and not always for the better. Recently, there have been several incidents involving swastikas on college campuses. This is potentially extremely worrisome in light of a worldwide rise in anti-Semitism, including on college campuses. Some of swastika sightings are clear acts of vandalism that are inappropriate on campus independent of the symbolism of the swastika – Stanford is a recent example where spray painting of walls with swastikas (or anything else) is an act of desecration that deserves punishment. But in other cases, university administrations have come down hard on students for a legitimate exercise of free expression that has no apparent connection with anti-Semitic use of the swastika symbol.

In particular, I am thinking of George Washington University. A Jewish student went to India recently and brought back a Hindu swastika and put it on the bulletin board in a college dormitory used by members of his predominantly Jewish fraternity (Zeta Beta Tau). The swastika has been used for thousands of years in both decorative and religious connotations. The Hindu swastika is similar to, but also distinctly different from the one used by Hitler’s minions in the 1930s and 1940s. Other swastikas are used by Buddhists and in particular by those of the Jain religion. Swastikas have been around for literally thousands of years. I suspect the GW Jewish student was showing his classmates how the swastika has a relatively innocent and even quasi-spiritual purpose in other cultures – although he may have not made that explicit.

But both GW and his fraternity came down hard on the student. He was expelled from the fraternity (by the national organization), certainly within its right to do so. The President of GW, Steven Knapp, condemned the student and the incident, and said it was being referred to the Hate Crimes Unit and indicated the student was not welcome at the university (although the student as far as I can tell has not yet been formally expelled). And Knapp called for explicitly banning the use of the swastika symbol on the GW campus.
That in my opinion is going too far – way too far. Actions like these have a chilling effect on free expression; in order to not offend anyone, we become guarded in our speech and actions. We repress the free interchange of ideas. We stifle dialogue and debate. We become dull, non-innovative and boring. We cease to be Americans – at least the type of Americans that the Founding Fathers helped nurture with the Bill of Rights, Americans who believe the right of free expression is at the core of what it means to be a citizen of what up to now has been the freest and most prosperous major nation this planet has ever seen.

The most disturbing thing about all of this is that universities – on the vanguard of the creation and dissemination of ideas – are taking the lead in suppressing free expression in order to be politically correct and be popular with the Chattering Classes of progressive journalists and so-called academics. Two very prominent GW law school professors, John Banzhaf and Jonathan Turley, expressed concerns about the GW action on legal grounds. Aside from First Amendment issues, the university by its dubious disciplinary action appears to be depriving a student of considerable future income and is opening itself up to civil damages of a considerable amount (maybe Shakespeare was wrong: we should not kill all the lawyers!). As Banzhaf notes, banning the Hindu svastika (the Hindu spelling) is one step away from banning the Star of David (or the Christian cross). It is interesting that this banning received widespread attention in India, where some viewed it as an anti-Indian and anti-Hindu act.

All that said, I fully acknowledge that the right of free speech and expression is NOT an absolute right, not subject to any limitation. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes correctly noted the First Amendment does not give a person the right to falsely yell “fire” in a crowded theater, causing panic and probable loss of life. I am very worried about the worldwide rise in anti-Semitism (a concern enhanced in my case by a relatively recent visit to Auschwitz). The use of swastikas to, say, call students to a rally condemning Israel in general and Jews in particular would be very disturbing to me – but I doubt it should be absolutely illegal. The issue – “where do you draw the line?” is a sometimes difficult one. However, the mere display of a symbol – the Hindu swastika – that has no association with anti-Semitism, as was the case at GW, should clearly be acceptable.

Individuals wanting to promote vibrant dialogue on college campuses often donate to their favorite university, maybe funding, say, a lecture series. Perhaps instead GW alumni should consider giving their funds to independent groups promoting free expression and adherent to First Amendment principles, such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

Schools: George Washington University