Thy Name Is Academe
requires freedom of speech as a precondition. Yet American universities
systematically censor voices that are politically incorrect while
those advancing the "correct" view such as radical feminism
or militant anti-racism remain strangely unrestrained. Yet, from
many accounts, hate speech on campuses is on the rise.
In his book Illiberal
Education, Dinesh D’Souza calls this phenomenon "prejudice,
not from ignorance, but from experience." By this, D’Souza
means that laws and policies that favor certain groups at the expense
of others create an intolerance where none previously existed. For
example, whites resent blacks who are admitted to universities on
a preferred basis. Males who watch their every word resent feminists
who male-bash with impunity.
Consider a remark made by Ann Rhodes the University of Iowa’s Vice
President for relations and UI spokeswoman at a news briefing on
briefing was meant to announce an arrest in connection with a bomb
threat and racist e-mails at the College of Dentistry. A reporter
asked Rhodes if she was surprised that the guilty party was an African-American
female student. An official UI spokeswoman for the past 11 years,
Rhodes replied, "I figured it was going to be a white guy between
25 and 55 because they’re the root of most evil" thus compressing
racism, sexism, and ageism into one brief sentence. If a male official
made such a similar comment about black women, he would be suspended
pending disciplinary action. Rhodes merely apologized. Then she
pointed out how many letters of support she’d received from women,
thus converting her apology into a quasi-defense.
What was UI’s response? On April 21st, UI President Mary
Sue Coleman sent out a vague letter stating, "Let us take it
as a wake-up call that reminds us that we should judge each other
as individuals by the content of our character." The "wake-up
call" referred to the racist e-mails and bomb threat, not Rhodes.
In a later statement, Coleman softened the comment about white males
being evil, "Ann tried to relieve her tension [about the arrest]
with a very inappropriate comment." Mary New Assistant
Director for University Affairs said she had "no knowledge"
of whether Rhodes would attend sensitivity training, a standard
cure imposed on men who make "very inappropriate comments."
On April 27th, the university declared the matter to
Contrast this experience with that of University of Oklahoma Professor
David Deming. In February, Deming wrote a letter to the student
newspaper the Oklahoma Daily in response to an anti-gun article
by Yale student Joni Kletter. She had written, "easy access
to a handgun allows everyone in this country...to quickly and easily
kill as many random people as they want." Deming commented
that Kletter’s "easy access to a vagina" allowed her to
have sex with random people. Nevertheless, he hoped she was "as
responsible with her equipment as most gun owners are with theirs."
There are striking differences between the comments of Rhodes and
Deming. Rhodes spoke as an UI representative; Deming was an individual
expressing a personal opinion. Rhodes made a blanket statement about
a racial, gender and age group; Deming spoke to one specific individual.
Rhodes declared a group to be the root of evil; Deming merely used
the word "vagina" to draw a clumsy parallel.
The difference in how Deming was treated is striking as well. A
letter collectively signed by professors and grad students condemned
him in the Oklahoma Daily. John Snow, the dean of the College
of Geosciences where Deming works, wrote him a letter stating, "In
the future, when you enter into public discussion on controversial
social issues, I ask that you weigh fully the non-trivial costs
and consequences to the individuals with whom you work and the institutions
which provide you a professional home." Only one professor
spoke out in his defense.
More than twenty-five complaints were registered against Deming
with the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative
Action. One of them was filed by Becky Hebert an associate professor
of human relations. Under extreme pressure from both the media and
Deming’s lawyers at the Center for Individual Rights (CIR), U of
O dismissed the complaints. The complainants appealed. Curt Levey
of CIR later informed me, "A day after the appeal hearing the
Univ. of Oklahoma reversed its earlier dismissal of the charges.
Deming is scheduled to be tried on the sexual harassment charge
May 5." On May 5th, CIR issued a press release.
Minutes before CIR filed suit with a federal court, the U of O had
canceled all disciplinary proceedings. The University’s General
Counsel conceded that "the First Amendment...would allow but
one conclusion" namely, the university would lose.
There is good news about the Rhodes controversy. The Daily Iowan
(05/03) reported, "A California-based "European-American"
group filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Civil
Rights Commission last week because of a remark made at an April
20 UI press conference." Rodger Murphey, a spokesman for the
US Education Department, said that federal law requires them to
investigate any discrimination based on race, religion, age, sex
or disability. The fact that UI receives federal tax money for its
operation lobbies for pursuing the complaint. According to the most
recent information available, the University of Iowa received $167.2
million in federal tax money, grants and contracts. Murphey stated
that it might take a few weeks to evaluate the case.
The complaint against Rhodes is good news in one sense only that
is, if those who espouse political correctness are made to feel
the brunt of their own censorship policies, then freedom of speech
may re-emerge on American campuses. No one not Deming or Rhodes should
face legal sanction for expressing an opinion. The suppression is
particularly offensive at state-funded universities, where speech
codes constitute nothing less then government censorship.
A bitter irony underlies the speech codes championed by radical
feminists, militant anti-racists, and gay/lesbian groups. The irony
is this: as little as three decades ago, a fledgling feminist movement
could not have developed without freewheeling discussion and dissent
about gender stereotypes. The early civil rights movement consciously
used confrontational language and provocative images. The gay rights
movement could not have flourished without the in-your-face attitude
of its early politics. Yet these groups are motive forces behind
the new campus censorship. Having been born in free speech, they
conclude that less discussion not more is called for.
In his book Hate
Speech: the History of an American Controversy, Samuel Walker
offered an explanation of why these aggressive groups have been
so successful at imposing campus speech codes. They constituted
"a coalition of advocates who...faced poorly organized opposition
in defense of an absolutist position on free speech." The good
news is that freedom of speech advocates may be organizing at long
Ann Rhodes has an inalienable right to state that white men are
the root of all evil, not merely most. (Whether UI should fire her
as a representative is a separable issue.) Nevertheless, I cannot
suppress a tingle of glee at seeing the ‘politically correct’ squirm
in a trap of their own making. I can’t resist laughing out loud
as I read feminist attempts in the Daily Iowan to justify
Rhodes’ statement. For example, consider the following self-proclaimed
"tips for offended white males" and imagine a man offering
the same to an offended feminist. The tips include, "Don’t
get so emotional.... Don’t take everything so personally.... Try
to understand your adversary’s viewpoint.... Don’t simply whine
and bitch about unfair generalizations."
If the tables turn in a sufficiently jarring manner, then perhaps
the speech code crusaders will remember a key lesson namely, that
censorship does not serve the interests of victimized groups. It
always serves those in power, with whom rests the decision of what
to censor. ‘70s feminists, civil rights workers and gay rights activists
knew this. The new campus censors have let a bit of temporary power
go to their heads and affect their memories.
Let freedom ring and let it be raucous!
McElroy is author of The