A university can only be free if expression is, and expression can only be free if criminal behavior designed to crush it is punished." Those words appeared on this page nearly eight years ago, on April 16, 1993, the day after 60 students calling themselves "the Black community" seized The Daily Pennsylvanian's entire press run -- nearly 14,000 papers. The words were true then and remain so today, as Brown University grapples with the same dilemma: how to react to the theft of newspapers by students claiming to be engaged in lawful protest. The answer is simple -- interfering with another's right to free expression cannot, in a free society, be considered free expression itself. And yet that's precisely the argument the so-called "Black community" tried to make in 1993 and it's the same argument the offenders at Brown are making now. The circumstances are fairly alike. Ten days ago, a group of Brown students stole The Brown Daily Herald's entire press run, about 4,000 issues. Not stopping there, the thugs descended on the newspaper's office. They tried to force their way in and take any remaining copies of that day's edition. The group did so after the Herald ran a paid advertisement by a radical conservative that called reparations for slavery "racist" and claimed that black Americans owe more to the slave trade and to their government than it owes them. Here at Penn, the minority community in 1993 was upset with what it considered exploitation by the administration and racism by this newspaper, particularly the views of a conservative columnist and the publication of a large front page photo of a homeless, drunk black man titled "West Philadelphian." In many respects, the minority community's complaints were accurate and in desperate need of redress. But rather than seeking that, leaders of the Black Student League coordinated an action that was in clear violation of not just the University's Open Expression guidelines -- which clearly state confiscation of campus publications is a violation of Penn policy -- but also criminal law and the U.S. Constitution. The lack of outrage by both the Brown administration now and the Penn administration then was and continues to be remarkable. Penn's president at the time, Sheldon Hackney, had just days earlier been named by President Bill Clinton to head up the National Endowment for the Humanities. Until 1993, he was known as a passionate defender of the First Amendment. Yet in the interest of political correctness and his fear of further alienating the minority community, he refused to outright condemn the theft. Instead, he issued vague statements noting that "two important University values, diversity and open expression, seem to be in conflict." And after an investigation, Penn's Judicial Inquiry Office dropped all charges against the students involved, meaning that no one was ever punished for trampling on our right to free speech -- one of our most basic of freedoms. Brown's interim president, Sheila Blumstein, is taking a similar stand (or lack thereof). She first issued a statement correctly pointing out that "the most effective response to ideas... is not to silence them or intimidate those who espouse or publish them, but rather to develop effective opposing arguments through wider civil discourse." But three days later, she did an about-face and seemed to take the side of the thieves. "As a community, we have an obligation to look out for each other and to treat each other with respect. In this particular instance, supporting those members of the community who feel most hurt must also be one of our defining values." Wrong. Those students certainly had a right to be offended over the racist ad, just as the Penn students in 1993 had the right to be offended over a racist tone that sometimes pervaded the DP's pages that year. But that does not give them the right to impede the newspapers' rights to publish or their classmates' rights to be exposed to other views. Universities must be places where freedom of expression is sacred, where ideas can be exchanged, argued and debated. It is the only way for we as students to learn all that we can and to continually expand our minds to new ideas. Once we start shutting off those ideas and the dialogues that flow from them -- and supporting those who do it -- we enter a dangerous place where the authority to decide what ideas are proper for public consumption is up for grabs. That's an authority that no one should have over anyone else. Not a university president, not a student leader and not even a newspaper editor. Anyone who tries to take that authority from where it belongs -- with each of us individually -- must be loudly condemned and punished.Comments powered by Disqus
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