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Will You Shut Up?

Kris Schnee

Sometime between the 1960s and today, the job description for college students has changed from “future leaders” to “future followers.” The last generation of college kids grew up so certain of their own moral superiority that, when they took power, whether Rhodes Scholars from Arkansas or Yale men from Maine, they no longer saw other peoples’ free speech as important. There has been a recent rash of cases on college campuses where people have reacted aversely to students’ unorthodox words. College administrators and sometimes even students are guilty of putting “public relations” ahead of the crucial need for an open debate field on American campuses.

David Horowitz, an outspoken and conservative Harvard professor, wanted to expose political censorship in college newspapers. So he picked a topic that you’d think would interest only the most extreme of Democrats -- the proposition that white Americans owe cash reparations to black Americans for what one group’s dead ancestors did to the other’s dead ancestors -- and wrote an inflammatory refutation of it. When he tried to buy advertising space for it in a number of college newspapers, he got the result that he wanted: young journalists nationwide refused to print an advertisement expressing a strong conservative argument. Some of the same newspapers had, several years before, run an ad denying that the Holocaust was real.

Worse, when a few newspapers agreed to run the ad, students at Brown were moved to action. A group of students stole nearly 4,000 copies of the Brown Daily Herald and raided the Herald’s offices in an attempt to capture the rest. The thieves demanded free advertising space and the Herald’s removal from campus distribution. In response to an opinion they didn’t like, college students felt that theft, extortion, and censorship were justified. The opposing viewpoint had no right to be heard.

Voo Doo, MIT’s humor magazine, drew fire for a parody. Its issue last spring contained a piece on “Bonsai Kittens,” cats which could be kept in boxes and force-grown into artistic shapes. The piece was backed up by a phony web site (which still lives), listing various bottle shapes for sale, but not prices or contact information. The FBI took notice, demanding that MIT release the name of the graduate student who launched the site. PETA and the U.S. Humane Society reportedly said that they wanted the site shut down, applauding the FBI’s action and calling the site’s legality “unfortunate.”

Technically, even a joke can be illegal. A 1999 law, passed as HR1887, aims to prohibit the “depiction of animal cruelty.” Congress’ bill summaries and the law’s exact text are ambiguously worded, implying that even a “fake” depiction of violence such as “Itchy & Scratchy” is now illegal (and remember the scene in The Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe where Aslan gets sacrificed?). More digging uncovers an exception for a “depiction that has serious religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical, or artistic value.” We have therefore established the principle that the government decides whose opinions have “cultural value,” and college students have been threatened for their sense of humor.

Last spring we had another free speech incident at MIT. During Spring Weekend, The Roots (a band whose members happen to be black) came to campus to perform. As they walked along Amherst Alley, some students on the roofdeck of Alpha Tao Omega called down to them, “We love black people!” An exchange followed, and it’s not clear what was said, but The Roots say the ATO brothers used an ethnic slur. The Roots responded by entering ATO’s house and brawling with them, with the woman known as Jaguar whacking ATO members with a spoon (we at The Tech are still wondering about that). The Roots went unpunished for physically attacking people who had used “words” against them. Meanwhile, MIT and the Cambridge Licensing Commission (a government body which claims the right to control who can live where) decided to smite ATO, pressuring the fraternity into a settlement. ATO expelled the offending members, sponsored a cultural symposium, and agreed to “sensitivity training.” The group was punished for the actions of a few members; worse, students were punished for things they said. The fact that the remarks were obnoxious is irrelevant.

Thanks to the 1960s generation of college students, we’re learning that “free speech” doesn’t include expressing opinions the majority disagrees with, or saying things that offend people. This erosion of the First Amendment is hitting us as college students. It’s only the fringes of our self-expression under fire so far, but any of us could be the next target. We need to watch for the next case of someone trying to shut college students up; it probably won’t be long.