Politics & Policy

Half Baked

The Big Men on Campus vs. free speech.

I hate to admit it, but all those well-paid opinion makers are right: There is a war of sorts on dissent in this country, and America’s young people are on the frontlines. Only the enemy is not John Ashcroft; it’s the former student radicals turned autocratic college administrators and professors who stifle debate and dissent in the name of “sensitivity” and “tolerance.”

#ad#Every day on college campuses across the nation, conservative students find themselves under siege for daring to deviate from the dominant liberal orthodoxy. Conservative newspapers are routinely stolen by leftist agitators, right-wing speakers are often shouted down at campus events because of their “extreme” positions, and conservative students are hesitant to express their beliefs in the classroom for fear of the negative effect it might have on their grades. Faced with a radically left-wing student power structure on one side and an adversarial administration on the other, campus conservatives have been forced to find creative ways to air their views.

Case in point: affirmative-action bake sales, wherein the price of a cookie is determined by the buyer’s race, religion, or gender. Blacks and Hispanics pay less than whites, Asians and Jews pay more (they are “over-represented” minorities, after all), and women pay less than men. It’s political satire worthy of the Onion, but not everyone gets the joke.

Affirmative-action bake sales have taken place at nearly a dozen universities across the country since February of last year, when the first bake sale was held at UCLA. In every instance, the bake sales prompted spirited discussions about affirmative action’s merits or lack thereof. The students were thinking, arguing, and debating. This is precisely the kind of activity a liberal (in the classical sense) university should be encouraging. Alas, the powers that be in academia are monolithically liberal in the modern sense and would rather enforce the progressive party line than allow even the remote possibility that one of their impressionable young students might be infected by dangerous conservative ideas–even if that infection is spread via a chocolate-chip cookie.

At Southern Methodist University in Texas, a bake sale was shut down because it created a “hostile environment” for minorities. A few weeks later, administrators at the University of Washington used the same excuse to close down the bake sale there. A pair of angry protesters actually fulfilled the “hostile environment” prophecy by trashing the tent in which the bake sale was being held. But instead of punishing the vandals, the university promptly ordered the bake sale shut down and later had the temerity to issue a press release chastising the College Republicans [!] for failing to embrace the “basic value of respect for [their] student colleagues.” (Yeah, those Republicans were really asking for it all right. Who do they think they are, speaking unpopular opinions at a school their families pay tens of thousands of dollars for them to attend?)

This is the free-speech equivalent of saying that a woman deserved to get raped because she dressed provocatively and took a wrong turn down a dark alley. But at least the threat of violence provided the liberal autocrats who run the aforementioned institutions of higher learning and ideological conformity with a pretext (however flimsy it might have been) for their acts of blatant censorship. Not so with my alma mater, Northwestern University.

The NU affirmative-action bake sale, held on October 31 and sponsored by members of the College Republicans and the Objectivist Club, lasted only two-and-a-half hours before its message was silenced in response to complaints from a few offended students. There was no threat of violence. No “hostile environment” was available to use as an excuse. But thanks to the “bias incident” clause recently added to the Northwestern Student Handbook, there need not have been. According to the handbook, “any action that threatens or endangers the emotional well-being, health or safety of any person” is enough to warrant intervention by campus authorities. Of course no university wants to come across as being against free speech and expression, so the officials who shut the event down claimed that they had procedural reasons for doing so.

The school officials argued that the student organizers had reserved their space under false pretenses, as the bake sale was not a bake sale at all, but rather a political demonstration. Thing is, it was a bake sale. True, the cookies were sold to prove a political point, but that doesn’t make the sale itself any less legitimate. Further undermining the administration’s already weak case is the fact that the bake sale was held at the Rock, a campus landmark which has been the site of demonstrations for every Left-wing cause under the sun, from antiwar protests to a hunger strike designed to force the university to add an Asian-American studies program to the curriculum. The administration even allows the use of the Rock by non-student vendors to sell copies of the unabashedly Communist and rabidly anti-American Socialist Worker newspaper.

This is nothing new. Northwestern has a long and not-so-illustrious tradition of supporting free speech for students so long as they say the right (i.e., Left) things. During the 70s, NU gave absentee students class credit so that they could protest the war in Vietnam full time. And as this excerpt from an e-mail correspondence between J. William Johnston, the NU official whose office was responsible for closing down the bake sale, and U.S. Supreme Court civil-rights attorney John Armor illustrates, not much has changed over the course of the last 30 years:

[S]o as to not hide my intentions, had I been on campus and had we not shut down the event on procedural grounds, I would have shut down the event anyway because in my opinion (and [one] shared by our general counsel’s office and other university legal counsels around the country) the act of charging differential rates for a product based on race, gender or ethnicity is discriminatory and not permissible legally nor justifiable morally. Further, on a diverse campus such as Northwestern’s we spend a great deal of time working to create a stronger sense of community. The activities surrounding the bake sale served to mitigate against the spirit of community which we are seeking to achieve.

For the record, however, we indeed do have a very strong policy which prohibits any effort to stifle free expression and speech. . . . We would have taken equally strong action against any person or persons who attempted to prohibit the bake sale students from fully expressing their views, irrespective of the un-popularity of the content.

I guess irony really is dead. How else to explain Johnston’s claim that Northwestern supports free speech when he readily admits that he would have shut down the affirmative-action bake sale regardless of whether the sales organizers violated any university regulations?

Yes, the sale was divisive. That was the whole point. It was designed to force students to consider the underlying philosophy behind affirmative action by viewing it in a different context. It was designed to get students to think, but thinking critically about the liberal sacred cow of “diversity” (defined purely in terms of what people look like rather than who they are) is strictly verboten in the politically correct world of academia.

But at least universities have to keep up the appearance of supporting free speech, no matter how heretical. Student groups, however, are under no such obligation. Northwestern’s Associated Student Government has already found the Objectivist Club guilty of financial and group misconduct, in part because of the group’s failure to procure an official SOFO (Student Organization Finance Office) cash box in which to keep track of their earnings. As a result, the Objectivist Club is barred from using its account with the Student Organization Finance Office to fund events. Club members can no longer even hold a formal meeting without student-government approval. All of which seems a bit harsh considering that the bake sale (you know, the one the university claimed was not really a bake sale at all) made a net profit of only 39 cents. To the consternation of many on campus, the College Republicans were found innocent of all charges since the group never officially sponsored the bake sale in the first place. Nonetheless, the politically motivated witch hunt accomplished its primary goal: to intimidate campus conservatives and force them to worship at the altar of diversity just like everyone else.

The beleaguered bake-sale organizers have their defenders among the Northwestern community, but a series of racial hate crimes on campus has provided the perfect pretext for trampling all over the civil liberties of students who refuse to conform to the stifling dictates of political correctness. Even though the most serious hate crime has been revealed as a hoax perpetrated by a narcissistic, Left-wing demagogue who wanted to draw attention to himself and his cause, the NU anti-hate community is still trying–with a large degree of success–to push its radical agenda on the university at large. That agenda that includes adding a diversity requirement to the school’s curriculum and pushing for harsher punishments for students guilty of so-called “hate speech.” In the words of Tracy Carson, president of the ironically named black student group For Members Only, “At a time when people are getting beat up and people are seeing swastikas on their doors, it doesn’t seem important to defend conservative ideas.” Sadly, comments like Carson’s are commonplace at universities like Northwestern, where radical leftists like Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore are considered mainstream.

Is it any wonder then that America’s universities are breeding grounds for the Angry Left? Students spend four years in a progressive bubble where liberal truths are never questioned or even articulated. When challenges to the liberal hegemony (affirmative-action bake sales, for instance) appear, they are greeted with incoherent rage and calls for censorship in the name of “tolerance.” The offended students babble on about racism, sexism, post-colonial oppression, and whatever other victimology buzzwords are currently in vogue, yet they are never able to say exactly why the ideas put forth by conservatives are so wrong. They just are–and everybody who isn’t ignorant or evil knows it. Of course, campus liberals don’t have to actually win arguments or debates. They need only hold a rally or two and the administration will silence the opposition for them.

Thrust out of their liberal cocoon and into the real world, post-graduate leftists find themselves lost and alone in a frightening and foreign land where their genius goes unrecognized by an uneducated populace filled with evolution-denying Bible Belt fundamentalists, confederate-flag-waving southern bigots, and profit-obsessed big businessmen. Pushed to the fringes of the liberal mainstream by their own radical beliefs and unable to compete successfully in the marketplace of ideas due to their inability to argue or articulate those beliefs, the post-graduates soon grow embittered to the point of irrationality. They see enemies on all sides and label whoever fails fully to support their agenda a racist, sexist, or fascist. Their political positions are no longer defined by what they want to accomplish, but rather by whom they want to destroy. They become the Angry Left.

As the Angry Left does not respond well to reasoned arguments, the only hope of defeating it lies in preventing the indoctrination of the next generation. The key to that strategy lies in restoring an ideological balance to academia, a battle that, for decades, conservatives have felt was not worth fighting because it could not be won. They were wrong on both counts.

College endowments are the most obvious targets. Universities receive billions in government grants and subsidies each year. A few thousand letters from angry constituents just might convince Congress to look a little closer at how that money is being spent. Conservative alumni could also begin withholding donations in protest of their alma mater’s left-of-center policies, thereby closing off yet another revenue stream. (See here for more ideas.) Finally, on and off campus, reporters and commentators should keep writing articles exposing the suppression of free speech on college campuses, because a university’s reputation is its single greatest commodity. Put enough pressure on the universities and they will cave. The student radicals of the Sixties taught us nothing if not that.

Joshua Elder is a freelance writer based in Evanston, Ill..

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