Woe to Moderates on the UW Campus

January 2, 2002

By Matt Rosenberg at The Seattle Times

Some undergraduates at the University of Washington are learning about freedom of speech the hard way.

Take Kathleen Ahern, a freshman business major from Sammamish. This fall, she passed the table of a campus group passing out “Scarves for Solidarity” with Afghan women, and was asked if she’d like to wear one. She declined, and a disagreement followed. Ahern eventually went on her way — posting fliers for a campus speech on terrorism by conservative commentator Ann Coulter.

But when Ahern passed the group’s table again later, she says she was called over and handed her fliers back. They’d been pulled down.

“I was frustrated, and irritated. It’s a concern that people aren’t willing to support free speech on campus,” Ahern says.

A freshman pre-major from Arlington, Va., John Miller belongs to the UW College Republicans. Like many campus organizations, UWCR posts notices of upcoming meetings.

“We’ve seen our fliers torn down as soon as they were put up, or within hours,” Miller says.

In a letter to the editor published last month in the UW Daily, Miller wrote: “If we are committed to a diverse campus that values minorities, (that) should also include Republicans, who are being persecuted for offering alternatives to the reigning liberal orthodoxy that is so ingrained.”

Sam Castic’s eyes have been opened, too. An out gay man, the UW sophomore political science major from Glen Ellyn, Ill., says he encountered peer harassment last year when he was involved in the UW Gay, Bisexual, Lesbian, Transgender Commission (GBLTC).

He says several members of the organization questioned his ability to represent the group’s interests because as a member of the UW student senate he — brace yourself here — sat next to, and was friendly with fellow student senator Richey Kemmling, a well-known campus Republican.

“I was immediately pegged as a Republican, and that was used as a joke or an insult” by GBLTC members, says Castic. “I had to have a series of meetings with the director to go over my voting record … It was a big stink.”

In a recent incident, Castic was labeled a racist by a student senate colleague after introducing resolution 8-8, calling for student unity in support of the fight against terrorism. Still pending, the measure was a softened version of Kemmling’s earlier, failed resolution 8-4. That explicitly stated support for the U.S. military’s anti-terrorism efforts, and also prompted racism charges.

“We need to realize diversity is more than one’s ethnicity or sexual orientation,” Castic says. “Tolerance and open-mindedness go beyond respecting everyone’s views so long as they agree with one’s own.”

Expect to hear more about the tripwires between engaged debate and campus strong-arm tactics next week. The Washington Association of Scholars, the Washington Policy Center and UWCR will present academic free-speech crusader Alan Kors at UW Thursday, Jan. 10, at 7 p.m. in Kane Hall 220.

He’s a University of Pennsylvania history professor and president of the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE. In a book he co-authored, “The Shadow University,” Kors describes how intolerance toward conservative viewpoints took hold on many U.S. campuses. Subsequently, Sept. 11 has raised parallel concerns from the left regarding student and faculty dissent against the war on terrorism.

Kors writes: “In the shadow university … free and unfettered debate … has been replaced by censorship, indoctrination, intimidation, official group identity and groupthink. The issue of whether we shall have intelligent and thoughtful universities can be addressed only if we have free universities.”

Will posters for Kors’ UW lecture be stripped down, as those for UWCR meetings and the Coulter talk were? Campus Thought Police should give the student body more headroom.

A case in point is Ahern. Though she tried to publicize the UWCR-sponsored Coulter event, she found offensive Coulter’s failure there to fully condemn abortion clinic bombers, when a questioner happened to raise the subject. Likewise, Coulter’s missionary zeal for converting Muslims to Christianity. Ahern is re-thinking her UWCR membership as a result. She also feels discomfort that among many UW Republicans there’s little willingness to seriously discuss pro-choice perspectives on abortion.

Similarly, Castic says UWCR suffered when Coulter sympathized with widely reviled comments by Jerry Falwell blaming sexual minorities and feminists for creating a climate conducive to the events of Sept. 11.

Nonetheless, for Ahern and Castic, the answer isn’t censorship. Rather, it’s to make sure everyone gets enough rope to either hang themselves, or corral support from swing constituencies.

Thanks to institutional politics abetted by humanities and social sciences faculty (not to mention cowed administrators), young moderates such as Ahern and Castic may be wrongly perceived on the UW campus as right-wingers merely for championing free-speech rights. Or, for associating with the “wrong” people, or taking a stand opposed by progressives.

That would be a shame. Their readiness to probe issues and establish core values apart from any interest-group orthodoxy or party mandates is something more liberals — and conservatives — should emulate. On and off campus.

Matt Rosenberg can be reached at oudist@nwlink.com.

Schools: University of Washington