Political correctness becomes Senate issue Humanities nominee faces questions

June 25, 1993|By Boston Globe

WASHINGTON -- The widening dispute over political correctness comes to the political arena today, when President Clinton's nomination of University of Pennsylvania President Sheldon Hackney to head the National Endowment for the Humanities comes before the Senate for confirmation.

At the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Hackney was in the middle of two episodes last spring that triggered a bitter outcry over the limits of free speech on his campus. He was expected to be questioned about them today by members of the Labor and Human Resources Committee.

In one case, a white student called a group of black women students water buffalo; in the second, campus police caught a group of black students stealing all editions of the student newspaper.

Civil libertarians and conservative opponents of restrictive speech codes regard Dr. Hackney as a leader and symbol of a movement loosely known as "political correctness" that has swept college campuses in recent years, aiming to legislate civility in the name of combating racism.

Ricki Seidman, a Clinton aide who works to help appointees get confirmed, said it was "totally mischaracterizing" Dr. Hackney "to put him in that movement in any way."

But Harvey Silverglate, a Boston civil liberties attorney who has fought the speech-code movement in courts across the country, called Dr. Hackney a "wolf in the First Amendment sheep's clothing."

"He has built a reputation for himself as a protector of free speech . . . when it's very safe and politically correct for him to do so," Mr. Silverglate said. "When it takes guts, Sheldon Hackney has none."

The debate over Dr. Hackney's nomination was expected to focus on two episodes that carried the issue of political correctness beyond the campus and focused a spotlight on questions of due process, fairness and academic freedom in the campaign against racism.

In January, an 18-year-old white student, Eden Jacobowitz of Long Island, N.Y., was working late in his dormitory at the JTC University of Pennsylvania when he was interrupted by the noise of a dozen members of a black sorority singing and carrying on in the street below. Mr. Jacobowitz shouted out the window, "Shut up, you water buffalo!"

A university judicial officer charged him with hurling a racial insult, and an administrative proceeding denied him the right to be represented by counsel.

The student offered to apologize to the women, but he refused to confess any racist intent, and the case was bound over for a hearing.

Dr. Hackney refused to intervene.

l,1l Under circumstances that suggest they may have been pressured by university officials, the women withdrew their complaint shortly before Dr. Hackney's nomination was formally

submitted to the Senate.

In April, a group of black students, infuriated by the writings of a conservative student columnist they deemed racist, made off with more than 14,000 copies of the Daily Pennsylvanian.

The action was condemned by student and faculty groups as a flagrant violation of press freedom, but Dr. Hackney suggested the students' action had been a protest, rather than a trampling of First Amendment rights.

Both Mr. Jacobowitz and the student who wrote the conservative column made plans to appear together on Capitol Hill to announce their opposition to Dr. Hackney's nomination.

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