'Diamondback' flap is about race, not First Amendment

MIKE LITTWIN

November 03, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

I'm supposed to be outraged. Some kids (vandals? protesters? terrorists?) at the University of Maryland stole about 10,000 copies of the student newspaper Monday and left in their place a flier saying the paper was racist.

School president William Kirwan quickly jumped into action, issuing a statement condemning the thefts. He made clear that "the University is unequivocal in its support of the First Amendment right of freedom of speech -- even if such speech is offensive to some persons."

If you want to get a red-blooded reporter's red blood boiling, all you have to do is attack that First Amendment.

I'm the same way.

I'm so First Amendment, I named my first four children Freedom, Of, The, Press.

And yet. . .

I find I'm not especially outraged. That's because what happened in College Park has little to do with freedom of speech or freedom of the press.

The issue (it was ever thus) is race.

This time, more specifically, it's race and the press.

At Maryland, black students have long complained about the Diamondback. This is not unusual. Most newspapers, including this one, get complaints from black readers about coverage of their community.

Last spring at the University of Pennsylvania, some black students trashed 14,000 copies of the student newspaper. They were protesting the work of a particular columnist who had written consistently against affirmative action and disparagingly about Martin Luther King Jr.

Sheldon Hackney, then the Penn president, did equivocate in the face of what columnist George Will called "brownshirt tactics" against the student newspaper. Hackney radically suggested that there were perhaps two sides to the matter.

This view did not sit well with everyone. Some called Hackney a slave to Political Correctness, that dread disease common to the college campus. What the P.C. police attempt, of course, is to silence those who don't hew to the P.C. line.

Were the Penn students trying to silence the offending columnist? Or were they simply trying to deliver a message?

The same questions can be asked at Maryland. The black students didn't attempt to take over the newspaper. They didn't kidnap the editor. What they did was dump some papers as a protest.

We can argue the merits of their case, and we can argue the method of the protest. But we shouldn't try to make this a First Amendment issue.

Look, I'm definitely not in favor of stealing newspapers. If people don't buy newspapers, I don't eat. When I put the two quarters in the metal box, I take out only one newspaper and I expect the rest of you to do the same.

If the people who stole the issues of the Diamondback are caught, they should expect to be punished.

But you couldn't really say that speech was suppressed. The paper came out the next day, with full discussion of the issue.

That, however, doesn't answer the question: Was the form of protest valid?

You could say that stealing the papers was an immature response to a serious question. In other words, it was just what you'd expect from a college student.

At least it shows a level of political awareness and concern. Or would you rather have the kids puking their brains out at a frat party?

Certainly, the protest was heard. If that's the point of a protest, it was a wild success. The story made the metro fronts of both The Sun and the Washington Post, and immediately people began to react.

The Maryland journalism school is busily putting together forums to address the issues of race and media. The Diamondback's editor has conceded the paper has not always done as well as it might in this area. He's not alone.

Most newspapers, including The Sun, don't do nearly as well as they should in covering black issues or promoting blacks to top management or, for that matter, making them columnists.

At College Park, the student body is 11 percent black. In comparison to most state flagship universities, that's an impressive number. If nothing else, it shows an effort to develop a diverse campus. Sometimes, that means a loud campus.

I'm not a subscriber to the Diamondback, so I can't address the complaints of racism or its more common corollary, racial insensitivity. But I'll take the editor's word that the paper could do better in serving the black campus community.

You can bet, in the wake of the protest, that it will certainly try.

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