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Free speech at Brown

Student editors deserve praise for standing up to the censorious mob

Not all that many years ago, Hodding Carter Jr., the courageous integrationist publisher of Mississippi’s Delta Democrat-Times, was having dinner in New Orleans with his wife, son, and daughter-in-law. Outside, a car engine backfired — and all three Carters dived for the floor. So accustomed were they to death threats from white hatemongers that they simply assumed they were being fired upon, Carter’s biographer, Ann Waldron, once explained in an interview.

That was a time when taking an unpopular stand on race meant risking your life. But today, what was once potential tragedy is now repeated as farce. On March 13, the Brown Daily Herald published a full-page ad submitted by conservative polemicist David Horowitz titled “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks Is a Bad Idea for Blacks — and Racist, Too.” Three days later (this was not exactly a spontaneous action), a mob of Brown University students destroyed copies of the paper and stormed the Herald’s offices to demand that the paper apologize and that it give the $725 ad fee “back to the Third World Community.”

To their credit, the Herald’s editors refused — and the administration backed them up. The next day, 4000 copies of the March 16 paper were distributed under police guard. The Providence Journal, the Boston Globe, and the Boston Herald have all editorialized against this assault-by-mob on the Brown Daily Herald’s First Amendment rights. And indeed, this is not a difficult call.

An angry mob can be a frightening thing, even when it mainly comprises privileged Ivy League students. But perhaps what’s most extraordinary is how readily the protesters have played into the hands of Horowitz, a former leftist who lives to provoke, and who has succeeded beyond all expectation with his anti-reparations advertising campaign. According to Horowitz’s own count, he has sent the ad to 51 student newspapers, and 21 — including the Harvard Crimson, the Columbia Daily Spectator, and the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, at UMass Amherst — have rejected it, which is certainly their right. (Boston University’s Daily Free Press published the ad, reportedly without incident.) Several of the papers that accepted the ad have, sadly, apologized, including the Daily Californian at the University of California at Berkeley, which capitulated after protesters went on a rampage inside the paper’s newsroom.

No wonder Horowitz recently exulted in his Salon column, “I am thrilled by the result. Who wouldn’t be?” Certainly he couldn’t have gotten this sort of attention on the merits of his arguments. Cliff Montiero, president of the Providence NAACP, thinks the Horowitz controversy may even help those who support reparations, telling the Providence Journal that the ad “is a wake-up call that freedom isn’t free.” Reparations for slavery is a debatable idea. But one of Horowitz’s points — that “trillions of dollars” have already been paid to African-Americans in the form of welfare and hiring preferences — is so offensive and wrong that even one of his supporters, journalist Mickey Kaus, calls it “gratuitous, bogus, inflammatory.” Not only are more whites on welfare than blacks, but Kaus notes that, historically, black families were actually denied welfare benefits by local authorities who did not consider them worthy.

Puerile though Horowitz’s arguments may be, the behavior of the mob was much worse. The answer to offensive speech is more speech, and those who wished to speak out against Horowitz’s ad had every right to protest, to denounce, even to call for a boycott. For instance, on Monday of this week a group of Harvard students marched to criticize an essay in the Harvard Crimson that some said stereotyped Asian-Americans. Nothing wrong with that. Similarly, when the Casco Bay Weekly in Portland, Maine, recently published two offensive, misogynistic cartoons, scores of readers complained, community leaders spoke out, and the editor apologized. But there was no censorship, no vandalism, and no violence.

At Brown, however, the protesters crossed the line — into suppressing the free-speech rights of others (by stealing newspapers) and by threatening violence (by marching to the Herald’s office and pounding on a locked door, demanding to be let in).

It should be noted, too, that the Brown Daily Herald is an entirely independent newspaper. It receives no student fees, and even pays its own rent for its off-campus office. Some student newspapers are indirectly subsidized by student fees, a situation that presents some sticky free-speech contradictions (although that is no excuse to censor or threaten). The Brown paper, free of subsidies, has every right to accept or reject advertisements as it chooses. Idiotically, the protesters actually circulated a statement criticizing the Herald for being “completely unaccountable to the university’s aims and its student body.” Damn straight. As A.J. Liebling memorably observed, freedom of the press belongs to those who own the press. Though the Herald’s detractors may lack the wherewithal to launch their own newspaper, they could certainly publish a flier, or even start a Web site. (Ad or no ad, Horowitz himself has enjoyed considerable success getting his views out on his Web site.)

Sadly, the brouhaha has revealed the contempt with which some students who consider themselves liberals view the First Amendment. This is hardly a secret — on campuses nationwide, so-called liberals have pushed for illiberal measures such as politically correct speech codes and rules of sexual conduct. Still, it’s disheartening to read the words of one student, who told the Boston Globe, “I think there’s a fine line between free speech and being disrespectful and distasteful, and the Brown Daily Herald clearly crossed the line.” What are they teaching these students? Publishing the Horowitz ad was in the best tradition of free speech because it was disrespectful and distasteful.

In the end, the Brown protesters have accomplished precisely the opposite of their aims. They have elevated the rantings of David Horowitz into a cause. A generation ago, Hodding Carter Jr. lived in fear of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens’ Council. Now, Horowitz can declare that he, too, has paid a high price for exercising his free-speech rights, living in fear of campus thugs — a point he tried to drive home during a recent appearance at Berkeley, at which he was accompanied by bodyguards. It was martyrdom Horowitz sought, and it was martyrdom his enemies unwittingly gave him.

The American idea is based on the right to speak out and to speak freely. Nowhere should that right be held more sacred than at a university, where unfettered inquiry is the very basis of academic freedom. The editors of the Brown Daily Herald were not necessarily free-speech heroes for accepting Horowitz’s ad — but they’re certainly heroes for defending their right to publish it.

As for the protesters, one wonders how they got into Brown without any apparent knowledge of our history. It’s clear they could all use a remedial course on the Bill of Rights.

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Issue Date: March 22-29, 2001

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