At Penn, the antithesis of what the academy should be about

Tommy Denton

September 21, 1993|By Tommy Denton

BEN Franklin has to be spinning in his grave as he contemplates the misdirected foolishness of the thought police at his beloved University of Pennsylvania.

The campus high sheriffs have decided to drop disciplinary proceedings against nine African-American students accused of stealing all 14,000 copies of an edition of the campus newspaper in April. The culprits had decided that the paper was written and edited with a racist slant, so they violated university rules -- not to mention a civil statute and an ethical sanction or two -- by confiscating all the papers, thus preventing circulation within the campus community.

By halting the disciplinary procedures last week, university officials committed at least a minor act of hypocrisy, if not an injustice.

In defending the decision, a faculty judicial official told the New York Times, "Mistakes by students must be seen more as opportunities for education than as occasions for punishment."

That would be a fine and reasonable proposition, if such an august principle were applied consistently. Unfortunately, a white male Jewish student endured the full brunt of a disciplinary tribunal after he hollered last December at a group of black women, referring to them as "water buffalo" and demanding that they cease their loud and disruptive talk that interrupted his late-night studying.

The women filed a hate-speech complaint against the young man, who denied that his scolding included any racial overtones. He added that he had formerly lived in an Israeli kibbutz, where the term "water buffalo" referred to a rude and boorish person.

Eventually, the women dropped the complaint, but not before the absurdity of the charges -- and the even more absurd capitulation by former university President Sheldon Hackney to pursue them at all -- became the brunt of vehement criticism from civil-liberties advocates and commentators around the country.

Dr. Hackney, now head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has left the university and his successors with an embarrassing legacy of weak-kneed defense of free expression.

But then his successors -- despite claiming now that they will deal "swiftly and sternly" with any "future" thefts of university publications -- hardly covered themselves in glory when they cowered in the corner last week and shuffled the issue out the back door, fearful of being branded as "oppressive" for enforcing rules against the moral equivalent of book-burning.

No one can honestly criticize the intentions of the campus utopians who press their efforts to curb racism, sexism and other moral repugnancies. This is a worthy and honorable objective. The bitter and dangerous contradiction, however, lies in the unintended damage those efforts do to the principles of free expression.

To paraphrase that eloquent curmudgeon H.L. Mencken, the problem with freedom is the need to defend so many so-and-so's who don't deserve it.

Anyone who is serious about understanding the depth and complexity of just how crucial this assault on essential liberties has become should read the comprehensive, thoughtful and challenging essay by Henry Louis Gates Jr., professor of humanities at Harvard, in the Sept. 20 edition of the New Republic.

He shatters many myths, exposes both subtle and blatant contradictions and tweaks more than a few ideological noses -- of unreflective First Amendment purists as well as the angry defenders of prohibiting hateful expression.

If rhetorical prohibition persists on university campuses across the land, the result will not be the eradication of wrongful and disrespectful behavior, but a festering atmosphere of anger, fear, resentment, distrust and an even further deepening of alienation.

Such an environment represents the antithesis of what the academy should be about: the honest pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. Rather than opening the way for the free exchange of ideas -- including the difficult and painful exertions necessary to eliminate racism -- the current trend toward chilling expression has divided the defenders of civil liberties and the champions of civil rights.

The antidote to hateful speech that appeals to the gut is the ardent appeal to the heart and mind through reason. That is not necessarily the easy way, but it is the essence of civil discourse, and upon it this nation has placed its hope. Shut off the discourse, and reason cannot flourish. When reason cannot flourish, the academy has exhausted its purpose for existence.

That should be a sobering thought for those learned officials who rationalize their cowardly capitulation in the face of the moral equivalent of book-burning.

Tommy Denton is a columnist and senior editorial writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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