Printed in the Williams Record and Providence Journal
"Shhh...We Don't Talk About That Here: The Death Of Free Speech"
As this academic year drew to a close, most college seniors were worrying
about final exams or graduation. I was worrying about censorship. The
Mad Cow, Williams College's only humor magazine, had just been
de-recognized for publishing a political satire article. The article in question was a
fake news piece about the College Council adding a "black guy" position who
would receive 3/5 of a vote. Within the article, the explanation was that "We
finally decided it was time to unify the campus by giving one minority student an
unequal share in the decision-making process."
Some were offended by the article's charge of tokenism on campus. More
were offended by the very idea that anyone would joke about such
issues. Those offended complained that such things should not be allowed
to be said, and the entire magazine was de-recognized.
Last year, another Williams campus publication (The Real Deal) printed
a fake WANTED ad featuring the Fire Marshall, pointing at his constant
confiscation of student appliances. In response, the (then) President of
the college sent a letter of chastisement to the parents of every student
contributor to that issue, and to the College Council in an apparent
effort to influence them to remove funding.
Events like these made me start to think of Williams as an Orwellian
utopia; everything was idyllic, so anyone who cast doubt on the perfection
of the status quo must be silenced. But that wasn't quite right. First of
all, the problem didn't just rest with Williams. When Horowitz's
anti-reparations ad made its circuit of college campus newspapers, there
were three typical reactions.
Some college papers simply refused to publish it, such as Harvard and
Columbia. Some college papers published it, and then later printed an
apology/retraction, such as the Daily Californian at UC-Berkeley. And some
college papers like the Brown Daily Herald and University of Wisconsin
Badger Herald printed it but then suffered attacks, charges of racist propaganda,
or even the theft of their entire print run.
The Editorial and Op/Ed pages of newspapers are designed as a forum for
controversy, their very purpose is to bring forth a variety of opinions
(which do not necessarily represent those of the editors) for public
consideration. Campus newspapers especially have a tradition of printing a
diverse range of opinions from all sides, and yet many attempted to block
Horowitz's ideas from the public eye. Political satire has the highest
level of free speech protection under the Constitution, in order that
those like H.L. Mencken may open our eyes to that which is
questionable. Yet one piece of satire in a humor magazine was sufficient
provocation to have the entire publication killed.
How is this possible? Wasn't it just a few decades ago that college
campuses seemed like the last bastion of free speech? These same liberal
institutions famous for sit-ins and demonstrations, known for the open
exchange of ideas, renowned for providing people with all viewpoints an
opportunity to be heard, have suddenly begun silencing anyone whose
opinions they don't like.
For a while, I couldn't figure out why yesterday's havens of free speech
had become the censorship outposts of today. And then it hit me. I
remembered that a few liberal outcries throughout the year had gained
much steam, instead of being silenced. Yet whenever anyone said something
that was politically incorrect, they were told that one did not talk about
such things at college, that it wasn't appropriate. I realized that what
was happening had a simple explanation: Many people don't like to hear
opinions that disagree with their own. It wasn't about the status quo, it
was about the belief system of the liberal colleges.
Forty years ago when right-wing thought was the norm, most colleges held
themselves high as defenders of free speech. The liberal underdog was
given a chance to speak out against the prevailing sentiment of the time,
and could point to flaws that the conservatives in charge would prefer
were never discussed.
The times have changed. Nowadays the left-winger is no longer the
underdog, and most colleges still are happy to provide a forum for
left-wingers to expose problems in right-wing thought. However, the
atmosphere has become hostile towards anyone wishing to suggest a flaw in
left-wing ideology, to the point where publication of opposing beliefs can
result in having one's publication stolen or de-recognized. As is too
often the case, those who fought for the right to express their beliefs
have attained victory, and set to work attempting to censor the rights of
others to express opposing beliefs.
This political changing of the guard has happened before-- remember that
Senator Strom Thurmond used to be a Democrat. Once upon a time, Democrats
were conservatives who supported the status quo, and Republicans were the
party for change. The Republicans fought to make their voices heard, and
were eventually successful. Having attained their desired state of
affairs, they began to support the new status quo, no longer in favor of
change. The Democrats then became the liberal party of progress,
supporting the right of the little guy to speak out against the status
Today, the climate has shifted once again, and it is the left wing who is
attempting to silence the right. If the colleges are truly liberal-- not
left-wing, but liberal-- they should realize that whenever free speech is
abridged, an injustice is being done. I am forced to dust off Voltaire's
old chestnut, "I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the
death your right to say it."
Let campus publications once again serve as a forum for all viewpoints,
and not try to limit what issues can be talked about and what sides of an
issue can be expressed. I don't know who will be the underdog in forty
more years, or what they'll want to say, but I know that I'll want them to
have the freedom to say it. For regardless of how much good we think our
beliefs have achieved, if we cannot tolerate public voices of dissent,
then we have failed.