Climbing Aboard a Carload of Clowns

PETER A. JAY

November 07, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace. -- Down in College Park the University of Maryland kids are at it again, belatedly catching a trendy wave that at most other campuses is already passing into history.

The story is a familiar one to those who follow the ongoing academic circus. First, half the 20,000 press run of the student newspaper, The Diamondback, mysteriously vanished. An anonymous message blamed the heist on the paper's ''racist nature.'' And then, inevitably, across the campus and much of the local intellectual landscape came the unmistakable sound of wringing hands.

Too much can be made of this, and probably will be. The incident seems at first to raise the interlocking issues of racial friction and free speech, but the chances are there's a lot less here than meets the eye.

Allegations of racism are part of campus life today, as were Viet Cong flags and Volkswagen microbuses a generation ago, or raccoon coats and freshman beanies a generation before that. As a rule they're not taken seriously any more by undergraduates, who now recognize them as little more than ritual -- part of the endless political buzz that is every university's background noise.

But they do attract the goggle-eyed attention of college administrators and the news media, and that's something undergraduates do take seriously. Especially for college journalists, the only thing better than getting the administration's goat is being seen by the big world outside as victims of censorship. If the Diamondback editors didn't steal their own papers, then they ought to thank the people who did. The publicity was priceless.

Within hours of the papers' disappearance William E. Kirwan, the president of the College Park campus, was on his feet defending free speech -- even if deemed offensive by groups accustomed to special privileges and to getting their own way -- and assailing censorship. This appeared very brave, no doubt was noticed by the legislature, and offered a nice contrast to the craven behavior of university administrators elsewhere when confronted with similar situations.

(In one such widely-reported case at the University of Pennsylvania, a group of minority students, in the process of making off with copies of a campus publication whose editorial tone they disliked, was halted in mid-theft by a university security guard. The university administration did nothing to the students, but sought to discipline the guard for his insensitivity.)

Before we get too excited about the recent case in College Park, however, it's worth noting that at Maryland, while black students had complained from time to time about The Diamondback's coverage, there was no evidence that any of those who took the 10,000 papers were black. The president of the African Student Association, in fact, suggested that many black students at Maryland had already adopted a more traditional and effective tactic for dealing with an objectionable newspaper -- not reading it at all.

There's no question that nationally, intolerance toward unfashionable viewpoints and even toward the unfashionable use of language did reach lunatic levels on many campuses before beginning to subside. Efforts to censor free expression ran wild. The late left-wing academic Herbert Marcuse, who in a famous essay on ''Repressive Tolerance'' argued that tolerance ought not to be extended to those who advocate politically unapproved points of view, would have been pleased.

At the University of Pennsylvania, administrative wrath descended on a freshman who called a group of carousing sorority sisters ''water buffalo.'' At the University of Connecticut, an Asian-American student put what she considered an amusing poster on her door, asking ''bimbos,'' ''racists,'' ''preppies'' and ''homos'' to keep out. The first three epithets passed muster -- ''honkies'' would probably have been fine too -- but the fourth got her expelled from the dormitory. She had to file suit in federal court to get back in.

Elsewhere, reports of racist threats and behavior have often turned out to be fraudulent, fabricated by the alleged victims as attention-getting tactics. Black students at Smith and Emory perpetrated such hoaxes, as did white students at Tufts and the State University of New York at Binghamton. In each case, before the fraud was exposed, the incident was cited by professional consciousness-raisers as evidence that campus racism was widespread.

The more elite the school, the more nonsensical the spasms of political hyperventilation seemed to be. Maryland, during most of that bizarre time, seemed to be spared the worst of the craziness. Now, however, somebody appears to have decided it's time to catch up -- which is like trying to climb into the car full of clowns just as it goes over the cliff.

Still, although it may be goofy, stealing 10,000 Diamondbacks isn't major crime. The papers are given away, after all, so they presumably have no monetary value, and the theft of something valueless is a minor misdemeanor at worst. Even the free-speech implications are more symbolic than real.

But if the inky-fingered thieves are ever caught, they should be properly punished. Perhaps they could be squeezed into a campus telephone booth and made to swallow live goldfish.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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