Hate speech is still free speech

May 16, 1994|By Franklyn G. Jenifer

IN RECENT weeks Howard University has been branded a "citadel of hate," a "breeding ground for a new generation of anti-Semites" and a "bastion of bigotry."

Such charges stem from the appearance of controversial speakers, notably Khalid Abdul Muhammad, who gained widespread notoriety as a result of the virulently anti-Semitic tone of a speech he gave at Kean College in New Jersey in November.

The charges also reflect outrage over the nationally publicized statements by two Howard students who vilified and caricatured Jews, as well as the erroneous claim that the university had canceled a scheduled speech by a prominent historian who is Jewish. Thus, an institution with a 127-year tradition of decrying and opposing bigotry has found itself accused of fostering bigotry of the worst kind.

Missing in this swirling controversy are two essentials: the facts and the First Amendment.

First, the facts. Those who express anti-Semitic views on our campus are totally unrepresentative of the university as a whole. To focus exclusively on the few Howard students -- out of almost 12,000 -- who espouse the most outrageous, offensive views is itself outrageous and offensive -- a grave disservice to an institution that has never wavered in its commitment to combat racism, prejudice and intolerance.

Howard has been neither silent nor wishy-washy in the face of anti-Semitism. I have repeatedly denounced those who would plant the seeds of bigotry and anti-Semitism on the campus. So have trustees, faculty members and many, many students.

Howard remains one of the most racially, ethnically and religiously diverse institutions of higher education in the nation, if not the world. It was founded by white abolitionists; it has long had Jewish students and faculty members; the faculty today is 20 percent white. How many predominantly white colleges and universities have a similar percentage of black faculty members?

In their effort to come up with a good -- translation: sensational -- story, many in the media distorted or overlooked such facts.

Some in the press and elsewhere have linked my impending departure from Howard with the way I handled the controversy over hate speech on the campus. Not true.

Such a linkage merely plays into the hands of hatemongers, who, with their predilection for conspiracy theories, have implied that Jewish organizations, disturbed by my actions, are orchestrating an attack on Howard and are behind my decision to leave.

But the overriding issue is the way freedom of speech seems to have been given short shrift -- or even mocked, when the speech in question is prefaced by the word "hate."

Some have asked me why I didn't simply ban Mr. Muhammad and others espousing similar views. That might have been the easier course, but would it have been the wiser one?

As a deep believer in First Amendment rights and academic freedom, I have taken the position -- all too often unpopular -- that speech should never be suppressed unless it directly endangers lives.

It is far better to allow the expression of hateful views in the light of day, where they can be exposed for what they are: vile, hurtful, insensitive -- and wrong. Instead of sacrificing the First Amendment rights that are so precious to us all, we should use these rights to counter and condemn such views.

Black and Jewish Americans, especially, must be wary of efforts to suppress First Amendment rights.

Freedom of speech has been the cornerstone of our efforts to combat prejudice and discrimination. It is far more important than the pitiful posturings of bigots.

We cannot abandon this right simply because some would abuse and dishonor it for their own agendas.

Franklyn G. Jenifer, president of Howard University, will become president of the University of Texas at Dallas on Sept. 1.

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