UW officials discourage free speech on campus

· Jun 28, 2001 Tweet

I thought I was graduating from college, not daycare. According to a statement published at the end of last semester in the Badger Herald, a cabal of UW administrators apparently feels its job is to educate “faculty, staff and students on civil behavior toward one another, and on asserting our precious freedoms conscientiously.” I disrespectfully disagree.

The statement refers, of course, to the Herald’s printing of David Horowitz’ advertisement in opposition to reparations for slavery, and of a cartoon that mocked the Ku Klux Klan. These items’ publication was, we are told, not “civil.”

So what? Civility is for dinner parties and fund-raisers, not the free press. Certainly it’s always nice when people are nice to each other. But being nice is not a moral imperative and it certainly does not trump free expression.

Not according to the undersigned. Many of those who signed the statement are no doubt dedicated to helping students. One of them has given me invaluable aid with my academic affairs. But the administrators’ pathetic, semi-official call for censorship displays nothing but political cowardice and a scary enthusiasm for treating college students like children.

What is most frightening is that the pressure to infantilize us comes from students, not administrators. Given that the administrators’ statement appears so long after the fact and that its rhetoric is so obviously recycled from the Multicultural Student Coalition’s anti-Herald advertisement, the intention is clear — the statement is a sop for the multicultural student activists whose feelings were bruised in Madison’s recent free-speech skirmish.

A small but vocal and well-connected percentage of students on this campus are demanding to be treated like children. They demand to be protected from ideas they hate and words that wound their emotions. They assert a right to not have their feelings hurt. To this end they have allied with more fanatical members of the administration to attack free speech.

Some examples: The dean of students’ Speak Up program defines offensive speech as “verbal harassment,” and pretends that it has the legal power to punish it. Student activists fought ardently to maintain the university’s Orwellian faculty-speech code. And last semester, the administration, with behind-the-scenes funding and support from the U.S. Justice Department, tried to put up anonymous informant boxes in bathrooms for the collection of unverifiable harassment accusations.

Most of the administration is quite happy to avoid trouble and go along with these ridiculous measures. They are scared of protests and of being called racist. It is sickening to watch administrators cower before politically correct fundamentalists. The removal of one’s spine seems to be a condition of membership in our great UW bureaucracy.

The encouragement of student activists and zealous bureaucrats, combined with cowardice and an obvious contempt for free speech, has therefore caused the administration to act like a totalitarian kindergarten teacher. “Play nice or you’ll get a free-speech timeout,” it says to us.

In their attack on the Herald, the administrators did little to hide their disdain for free expression. “The publication of a paid advertisement, even one that denigrates and insults, is within the realm of free speech and protected as a constitutional right.” (Thanks for the news flash.) The statement then goes on to argue that the Herald should never have exercised that constitutional right. This cavalier attitude of government officials toward the First Amendment proves exactly why we need it. In essence, UW administrators are saying, “We consider what the Herald did a crime, but are prevented from punishing it by that pesky Bill of Rights.”

Of course, this is all supposedly about “civility,” not free speech. But if the worst thing the Herald is guilty of is not being polite, or not being nice, then perhaps it should provide a free diaper and pacifier with every paper. Or perhaps just a complimentary Kleenex.

It is not the business of university administrators to concern themselves with the civility of debate outside the classroom. Or to take sides — apparently the administration is unconcerned about the civility of protesters who screamed offensive epithets at Herald staff members.

The authors of the statement wish to solve perceived campus-climate problems by telling the Herald to shut up. I have a better solution: People who cannot stand to hear opinions they disagree with should stop up their ears with cotton and lock themselves in a soundproof chamber with UW administrators. I’m sure things will be quite civil there.

Censorship and cowardice are not the values the University of Wisconsin should be promoting. A university is supposed to confirm us as adults by helping us to pursue knowledge. Instead, UW administrators wish to act as speech inquisitors, protecting us as children from the menace of other ideas.

— Hasdai Westbrook graduated from UW-Madison in May 2001.


This article was published Jun 28, 2001 at 12:00 pm and last updated Jun 28, 2001 at 12:00 pm


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