The (No) Free Speech Movement

April 2001

One hundred screaming protesters outside the doors of a small newspaper office can be intimidating, especially for the editor who is the main target of their abuse.

The protesters swarmed outside the office of my paper, the Badger Herald, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, after first marching across campus brandishing placards that read "Badger Herald Racist." They demonstrated for more than an hour, demanding my resignation as editor, because the Herald had run a paid advertisement entitled "Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery Is a Bad Idea -- and Racist Too." The ad was written and placed by David Horowitz, a conservative author, and had appeared on the last day of Black History Month, a full six days before the demonstration, which took place March 6.

The 10 anti-reparations reasons listed ranged from the commonplace ("There is no single group clearly responsible for the crime of slavery," or "Only a tiny minority of white Americans ever owned slaves") to the very controversial ("What about the debt blacks owe to America?"). But our decision to publish was based on the straightforward view that our paper believes in free speech.

The Horowitz ad was published elsewhere too, and the hostile response to it was as disturbing as the mobbing of our offices. Angry protesters confronted staffers of the Daily Californian at the University of California, Berkeley, after the ad had run. The Daily Cal's editor, Daniel Hernandez, printed a front-page apology for running the ad, calling his paper "an inadvertent vehicle for bigotry" and acknowledging, in a mea culpa wrung from him by the protesters, that the ad had not passed through the proper channels.

We were also under pressure to abase ourselves. But the Herald editorial board refused to run an apology. Instead, we published an editorial saying that "at the Badger Herald, we only regret that the editors of the Daily Californian allowed themselves to give in to pressure in the manner that unfortunately violated their professional integrity and journalistic duty to protect speech with which they disagree."

The issues raised here go to the heart of a critical question: Are American university campuses free and open to a spirit of inquiry, or closed places where activist cohorts can determine what is, or isn't, acceptable? Signs of rot can be detected in the fact that at least 15 college newspapers -- including those at Harvard, Columbia, Notre Dame, the University of Washington, Georgia Tech and the University of Virginia -- have rejected the Horowitz ad on grounds that it was politically unacceptable.

This is not to say that newspapers must print all advertisements submitted. The Herald does not prints ads that are completely false. The ad submitted (and rejected) last weekend by the Multicultural Student Coalition calling the Herald a "racist propaganda machine" would fall into this category. But the Horowitz ad is well within the bounds of political discourse.

One student (and student-government representative) at the Badger Herald rally shouted, "This isn't free speech, it's hate speech." Really? Most people outside of college campuses no doubt would be amazed to find that reparations for slavery has become, for some, a nondebatable subject.

On a traditionally liberal campus like ours, any opinions originating from the right tend to be stomped out with a vengeance. Rather than rebut Mr. Horowitz's arguments, the protesters simply tried to drown out his message with name-calling directed at the Herald. It's woefully apparent that the same campuses that once stood for idealistic causes in the '60s and '70s now tolerate only political hyper-correctness and unchallenged "progressive" thought. Though the students who protested at the doors of the Herald say they demand "diversity" -- UW-Madison's latest buzzword -- they appear not to accept that principle when it comes to expression or beliefs.

The most consistent criticism of the Herald's action in printing the Horowitz ad has been our alleged lack of sensitivity to students of color on campus. While I do not deny the passionate reaction by many students to the advertisement, this is one of the painful and inescapable by-products of the free-speech principle by which ethical journalists must abide.

Shamefully for the culprits, the most recent maneuver in the speech wars at UW-Madison is an illegal and cowardly one. Several students have witnessed others throwing away stacks of Heralds from their racks in university buildings, while several Herald staff members have retrieved heaps of bundled papers from garbage cans in the same buildings. How ironic it is that the diversity of viewpoints the activists are demanding is trashed along with the open forum in which it can be represented.