Trashing College Newspapers

January 24, 1994

Few freedoms are more basic to our political system tha freedom of expression. It's hard to imagine representative government working at all without it. That's why it is all the more perplexing when the different forms of expression collide. That's what is involved in the sporadic trashing of student newspapers by minority students who feel aggrieved by something that was published.

Universities, of all places, are sanctuaries for the free exchange of ideas. Does that exchange have limits? Certainly, but they are not easy to define. At one extreme, there's the old adage that freedom of speech does not permit wantonly shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater. Does that freedom embrace racially offensive comments? Does it embrace responding to such comments by stealing, after the fact, the publication that made them?

Officials of some colleges where student newspapers have been trashed have spoken out strongly against such demonstrations. Others have temporized. A few have behaved cravenly. Their reward is to have the government threaten to jump in -- a real threat to freedom of expression.

Two Maryland legislators are sponsoring a bill to make the theft of free newspapers a crime. Their bill arises from the decision of prosecutors that you can't be convicted of stealing something that has no monetary value. Student newspapers typically are financed by colleges or student fees and are distributed without charge. The proposed legislation is well-meant but irrelevant, and perhaps harmful to the cause it seeks to espouse.

Racially offensive epithets have no place anywhere. Newspapers, whether student or professionally produced, are no exception. Neither does the stifling of free expression by violent acts. Make no mistake about it, destroying newspapers is a violent act and a negation of freedom regardless of whether it is technically not a violation of the law. So how to resolve this collision of values?

Enacting more laws is not the answer. The animosity against certain student newspapers did not erupt in a vacuum. It is a symptom of broader racial animosity on those campuses -- animosities that understandably concern college authorities. University officials who are not dealing with racial tensions on their campuses are conspicuously unfit to lead them. And stifling the flow of opinions on those campuses undermines the very freedoms minorities cherish the most.

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