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Last week, a band of angry political operatives set out to destroy their local newspaper. First they fanned out into the community, picking up every copy of the paper they could find and marking them for destruction. Then they headed for the newspaper office itself, where they tried to storm their way inside and destroy the last 100 earthly copies. Sounds frightening, doesn't it? Angry political operatives. A mob converging upon the local newspaper office. The whole scenario bears a striking resemblance to the anti-press fever we'd likely associate with Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. But this scene didn't pan out oceans away. It took place in Providence, R.I. It took place at Brown University. On Friday, a coalition of offended student groups set out to steal the entire press run of The Brown Daily Herald, Brown's independent campus newspaper. The students -- who succeeded in making off with all but the last few issues of that day's edition -- were responding, they say, to an inflammatory advertisement which appeared in the paper last Tuesday. The ad, which was written by leftist-turned-conservative David Horowitz, made several outlandish and revisionist claims regarding the need to deny the payment of reparations to the families of former slaves. Horowitz's argument, essentially, was that slavery was an institution that could not be blamed on one single group, and that the payment of reparations would serve only to penalize those who had little to do with it. To prove his point, though, Horowitz relied on a number of corrupt suppositions. He notes at one point, for instance, that the failure of American blacks to achieve economic wealth can be attributed solely to "failures of individual character," rather than the lingering effects of racism and discrimination that do indeed go back all the way to the days of the slave trade. Obviously, the students at Brown had more than enough reason to be upset. A university outsider -- someone with no tangible connection to the Brown community -- had placed an egregious message in their campus newspaper advocating a number of preposterous and ignorant ideas. But instead of lashing out at Horowitz or running their own full-page ad in rebuttal, the student coalition responded in perhaps the most unproductive way possible -- they stole the newspaper. They blamed the Herald's editors for providing a means for communicating such trash and claimed that the publication wasn't accurately representing the university community. They demanded that the paper remove the name "Brown" from its name. They demanded that the paper donate the $725 advertising fee to a fund for the Third World community. And through it all -- through the spectacle which quickly gained national media attention and scrutiny -- they limited the expression of ideas on their own campus, and garnered a world of free publicity for David Horowitz and his flawed ideology. Brown isn't the only campus that has been swept up in Horowitz frenzy, however. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Badger Herald has been the target of attacks from numerous members of the campus community. Outraged students there stormed into the newspaper's office, demanded the resignation of the Badger Herald's editor-in-chief and placed an ad in a competing publication in which they referred to the paper as a "racist propaganda machine." And at the University of California-Berkeley, the quick backlash of the student body forced the Daily Californian's editorial board to run a front-page apology just days after they ran the offending ad. It should go without saying that the right of free speech is the most crucial element of a democratic society. And in keeping with that principle, even the views of men like Horowitz should fall under the broad protections of the First Amendment. But that principle, it seems, has largely been ignored by those who would go to near-fanatical lengths to prove their points. The students at Brown, and others, argue that the newspaper didn't have a responsibility to run the ad. They say that they could have rejected it -- as many other papers did -- on the grounds that its factual foundation was inherently incorrect. The Herald's editorial board chose otherwise, though. And in response, the Brown student coalition essentially set out to censor a voice which, at worst, was willing to publish an advertisement espousing views that didn't even remotely represent the popular sentiments on their campus. That decision, while controversial, is not nearly as damaging as the theft of the day's edition of the Herald. Stealing newspapers -- just like omitting crucial information from a news story or intentionally misrepresenting quotes -- is an action which leads only to the obstruction of the truth, and the further obstruction of that crucial free speech. It's a result that plagued the citizens of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. And it's a result that the Brown protesters don't seem to be recognizing. Sounds frightening, doesn't it?

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