Hillary's Defense of Free Speech

May 19, 1993

Congratulations to Hillary Rodham Clinton for giving a neede lecture on free speech to Sheldon Hackney, the president of the University of Pennsylvania who is her husband's choice to direct the National Endowment for the Humanities. Dr. Hackney is embroiled in racial controversies that have hit his Ivy League institution in part because it has attempted to foist an elaborate speech limitation code on its students and faculty.

"We must always uphold the idea of our colleges as incubators of ideas and havens for free speech and free thought," the First Lady declared at a Penn commencement this week. While voicing distress at hateful words or acts, she added: "We must be careful not to cross the line between censuring behavior we consider unacceptable and censoring. We have to believe that in the free exchange of ideas, justice will prevail over injustice, tolerance over intolerance and progress over reaction."

In the context of the turmoil wracking Penn, Mrs. Clinton's words could be construed as a rebuke to Dr. Hackney, who has tried to calm racial tensions by equating "two important university values, diversity and open expression." As desirable as it may be to foster good will among diverse college groups, we think what institutions of higher learning are all about is open expression.

William C. Richardson, president of Johns Hopkins University, put it well last year: "We do not need a speech code, not because no one ever says hateful things but because we are committed to free speech, free inquiry and open dialogue as the core values of our life as an academic community."

Whether Dr. Hackney deserves confirmation in a post that hands out lots of public money for the alleged furtherance of the humanities will have to await Senate hearings. But he has done himself and the Clinton administration no good by carrying "political correctness" to a point of absurdity.

Saddled with a speech code that is almost a parody of what universities should avoid, the Penn president has allowed disciplinary charges to be brought against a white student who called some black female students "water buffaloes" (not a racial epithet; water buffalo are indigenous to Asia, not Africa) but has taken no action against other black students who trashed an entire edition of the campus newspaper because they objected to a column written by a conservative white student.

As Mrs. Clinton observed, there is a big difference between "censuring" such a student with a harsh riposte, as he probably deserved, and "censoring" him by threatening him with expulsion or by destroying an issue of his newspaper.

It is ironic that Mrs. Clinton, often viewed as an advocate of political correctness, has delivered the most forthright defense of free speech and free press that has been heard so far from her husband's administration. Whatever Dr. Hackney's fate, whatever the outcome of the controversies at the University of Pennsylvania, her words should resonate on every American college campus.

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