Confiscating Free Speech

November 03, 1993

Officials at the University of Maryland College Park must issue an unmistakably clear and forceful condemnation of the theft Monday of 10,000 copies of the Diamondback, the daily newspaper produced by College Park students.

The university has long been on the record with strongly worded policies against these types of acts. In 1990, it released a "Statement on Freedom of Expression" that prohibits interference with speech. For more than a decade, the Code of Student Conduct has forbidden deeds that "substantially [hinder] the freedom of expression of others." It also says "such actions may result in suspension or expulsion from the university."

University president William Kirwan gave the proper early response when he said the school "is unequivocal in its support of the First Amendment right of freedom of speech -- even if such speech is offensive to some persons." However, school officials must take disciplinary steps that don't mock their tough policies protecting speech.

University of Pennsylvania president Sheldon Hackney was rightly hammered after a similar paper-stealing incident last spring, when he let the perpetrators go unpunished by explaining that "diversity and open expression" are equal values. He had it all wrong. Open expression is paramount in our society. We should celebrate our diversity, but only after we have guaranteed the freedom of all Americans -- including racists and hate-mongers of all creeds, colors and nationalities -- to speak and publish what they will.

Signs left by the College Park thieves -- "Due to its racist nature, the Diamondback will not be available today" -- and subsequent media reports suggest the heist was performed by students who claim the newspaper's bosses and articles are insensitive to minorities. (Black students refer to the daily as the "Demonback.")

If minority students have a valid beef about being blocked from important positions on the paper, then the university should remedy any injustice. The minority students, meanwhile, can picket the paper's offices, write letters to the editor or urge a Diamondback boycott, as they are within their rights to do. But no group has the right to confiscate a newspaper, no matter how offensive its policies or opinions. Black students should try to imagine how they would feel if anyone filched copies of the two black-oriented publications on the UMCP campus. They would be in an uproar about it, and understandably so. Maybe by imagining that scenario, they can realize the impropriety of the theft of those 10,000 copies of the Diamondback.

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