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Silverglate Reponds to Critic of UMass Amherst Column

FIRE cofounder Harvey Silverglate authored a piece in the March 11 Boston Phoenix entitled “UMass Amherst Parodies Itself,” in which he criticized the UMass administration for its reaction to “racist” photos of a party involving student government candidates who felt they had been unfairly labeled as racist during their campaigns. As Harvey put it:

They took photographs of themselves posing in front of a cartoon depicting the candidate dressed in Ku Klux Klan garb, with a moronic expression on his face. It was difficult—nearly impossible—to miss the comic intent of the drawing.

For those who are interested, FIRE’s press release on the situation goes much deeper into the details of the incident itself and includes a picture of the “racist” drawing—judge for yourself. UMass’s reaction was to do its best to punish the students individually (in violation of the Constitution) and to appoint a commission to report on the climate of “racism” at UMass Amherst. Harvey’s article pointed out the inevitable result of the appointment of such a commission:

Its major recommendation—surprise!—was to create another expensive and useless bureaucracy led by a “senior-level administrator with adequate staffing, budget and resources to report directly to the Chancellor to review and coordinate all diversity and inclusion activities.” In a system without the resources to support a full-time tenured faculty, at a campus that makes increasing use of part-time contract teachers but has become too expensive for most working-class and minority students to attend, the commission nonetheless concluded that another bureaucracy was needed to solve the “problem” posed by an obvious parody.

UMass is not without its defenders. Andrew Varnon, a staff writer for the Valley Advocate (of Easthampton, Mass.), responded to Harvey with a column in the Valley Advocate and a letter to the Phoenix. While his whole letter is too long to quote in its entirety, here’s the crux of his argument:

It’s one thing to defend the free-speech rights of conservative students on a liberal campus. However, Silverglate chooses to ignore the bigger issues of race and class on the UMass campus. In his telling, the conservative students were simply victims of “the campus race lobby,” but in real life, they had taken steps to dismantle student-government-funded campus minority-advocacy groups. Does that mean that they are racist? Maybe not, but it certainly makes the grand-wizard cartoon a little less convincing as “parody.” One can argue whether the plan drawn up in response to the diversity commission’s report will improve the campus climate—that debate is happening within the extended campus community now. But if all Silverglate can see is the conservative students’ plight, he’s ignoring the real story.

Harvey’s response was also printed in the Phoenix:

My pieces on the UMass KKK-cartoon parody and related diversity initiative did not defend “conservative” students, nor minimize the importance of race relations. Rather, I defended free speech and academic freedom, which were grievously wounded when the “conservative” students were punished for engaging in a parody that was clearly constitutionally protected, and I decried the university’s throwing more money and more administrators at a “problem” that is best left for students to work out without the “help” of the already-oppressive racial-diversity apparatus.

Harvey notes something that Varnon missed in his letter—that the students were officially disciplined or threatened with discipline by the university for the ill-defined “crime” of being around a picture that some people found offensive. It's not clear from Varnon’s letter or article that he is aware of this punishment, but considering how informed he is about the goings-on at UMass and FIRE’s participation in events there, it’s hard to believe that he isn’t. (We made it very clear in our press release.) It’s fine to attack students for opposing programs that you think are useful. For instance, some of the punished students were well known for their opposition to a plan to give students affiliated with a campus group for “African, Latino, Asian/Pacific Islander & Native American” students a quota of seats in the student government (a plan UMass’s own counsel deemed unconstitutional). But Varnon, whose article, at least, discusses free speech issues, has a responsibility not to remain silent or conveniently leave out facts about the unjust punishment of students who merely disagree with his position.

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