A Cowardly Bully, but Oh, So Sensitive

GEORGE F. WILL

April 29, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

Washington. -- An institution, we are told, is the lengthening shadow of a man. If so, official mischief at the University of Pennsylvania is of more than merely parochial interest because Penn's president, Sheldon Hackney, is President Clinton's nominee to head the National Endowment for the Humanities. So consider the cases of Gregory Pavlik and Eden Jacobowitz.

Mr. Pavlik is one of many columnists for the student newspaper, the Daily Pennsylvanian. Robustly right-wing, he is comprehensively offensive to the politically correct. He denounces Martin Luther King, racial preferences and much else. He is often extreme and heavy-handed, which is to say he is squarely in the tradition of undergraduate journalism.

And he is the reason why, two weeks ago, some black students met delivery trucks early in the morning, seized almost all 14,000 copies of the paper, and dumped them in trash bins. The trashers offered this defense: ''Not only are the papers free, but there exists no explicit restriction on the number of papers that any given student may remove.'' President Hackney's mincing description of this assault on press freedom: Papers ''were removed from their regular distribution points.''

Mr. Hackney's first statement was of regret that ''two important university values, diversity and open expression, seem to be in conflict.'' A remarkable statement, that. It is clearly craven yet has no clear meaning. (Does the ''diversity'' value mean that some groups but not all groups that are part of the university's diversity have a right not to be annoyed?)

A few days later Mr. Hackney's even limper defense of the First Amendment was: ''Taking newspapers is wrong.'' But also: ''I recognize that the concerns of members of Penn's minority community that gave rise to last week's protests are serious and legitimate.'' What ''concerns'' are ''legitimate'' -- concerns that right-wing opinion is being published?

The university will investigate whether -- yes, whether -- the trashing of the paper violated freedom of expression. The severity of this investigation can be gauged by an official's statement that the university will take into account the fact that -- those who suppressed the newspaper ''did not see their protest in the context of its being an infringement of free speech.''

President Hackney's credentials as a defender of free speech are academically orthodox. He defends federal subsidies for Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic exhibits and says disapproving things about Sen. Jesse Helms, thoughts not perilous on campus. He is a First Amendment fundamentalist, but with a selectivity that suggests political calculation.

The latest victim of the Hackney doctrine of balancing ''diversity'' (or ''sensitivity'') against free expression is Eden Jacobowitz. Late one evening he and others in his dorm were bothered by a noisy gathering of black students outside. He and others shouted at the noisy students. Some persons shouted racial epithets. Mr. Jacobowitz shouted ''Will you water buffaloes get out of here?'' and ''If you want to party, there's a zoo near here.''

When campus police arrived, others who had shouted denied doing so. Mr. Jacobowitz said he had, and that he knew the race of the people he was shouting at, but he adamantly denied shouting any racial slurs.

In subsequent proceedings against him, one of the university administration's thought and speech enforcers demanded to know if Mr. Jacobowitz had been having ''racist thoughts'' that night, and insisted that the phrase ''water buffalo'' was racist. Various scholars, black and white, have defended Mr. Jacobowitz. He was for 12 years a Yeshiva student and on the fateful night he used the English translation of the Hebrew word ''behameh.'' It means water oxen, and in slang means a thoughtless, foolish person.

The Hackney administration tried to get Mr. Jacobowitz to plea bargain. It would stop persecuting him if he would accept the punishment preferred by totalitarian regimes and American campus liberals -- re-education, in the form of ''sensitivity'' training. He refused.

Last Friday the university's trial of him was postponed, ostensibly because of a procedural technicality, but perhaps because of scornful press attention. The university may hope to resume its persecution later, when no one is watching, hoping that meanwhile the example of Mr. Jacobowitz, anxious in limbo, will exert a chilling effect on speech, to the gratification of the politically correct.

President Hackney's university is mild, ''understanding,'' almost condoning when a politically incorrect columnist is a black group's excuse for brownshirt tactics against a newspaper. But the university is ludicrously aroused by Mr. Jacobowitz's supposed violation of . . . what? Some rowdy people's right not to be annoyed while they are annoying others?

President Hackney's institution has a propensity for behavior both cowardly and bullying, trimming principles to pander to political fashion. As he heads for Washington to superintend the disbursement of millions of dollars to scholars, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports: ''Scholars praise Hackney as even-handed, moderate.''

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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