Harvard Crimson (Harvard U.)(U-WIRE) CAMBRIDGE, Mass. ?
This Wednesday will mark the two-week anniversary of an assault against freedom of speech. On Feb. 28, the University of California at Berkeley?s independent paper, the Daily Californian ran an advertisement titled ?Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery is a Bad Idea ? and Racist Too.?
The ad, sent to more than 30 college newspapers, was written by David Horowitz, a former Black Panther turned conservative activist. Its publication sparked outrage at Berkeley and elsewhere. Angry student protesters demanded an apology and the Daily Californian capitulated, running a front-page mea culpa.
This uproar is one more example of how America?s fanatical obsession with sensitivity has slowly eroded the right of individuals to express controversial ideas. The First Amendment is being held hostage by political correctness, and if freedom of expression is to maintain its meaning, this trend must be reversed.
Student protesters have every right to dispute the claims of Horowitz?s advertisement and newspapers have the right to reject the ad?s publication if they think it is factually or morally incorrect. They may well be right ? certainly there are arguments to make against Horowitz?s position.
But the protesters didn?t make these arguments. Instead, they mobbed the newspaper?s offices and branded the Horowitz ad as racist without saying why. The Daily Californian caved at the first hint of protest, running an editor?s note that read, in part, ?We realize that the ad allowed the Daily Cal to become an inadvertent vehicle for bigotry.?
Yet many thoughtful commentators do not believe the ad was racist. It obviously contains arguments to which some African Americans may object, and voicing these arguments is not politically correct. But there is a difference between political incorrectness and racism. Horowitz?s ad says nothing that promotes prejudice or entrenches stereotypes of racial inferiority. What, then, makes the ad racist? Was it immediately condemned simply because it was controversial?
The entire dispute is reminiscent of the melee that recently surrounded Kenan Professor of Government Harvey Mansfield when he asserted that affirmative action at Harvard caused grade inflation. Many students found nothing racist in Mansfield?s claims. The Black Students Association did, and it launched visible protests. In doing this, the BSA was well within its rights. The Constitution guarantees that it can take umbrage at whatever it wants to.
But the BSA did not draw the line at criticizing Mansfield?s statement. It demanded that Mansfield be censured, implying that Harvard should not respect his right to express his views.
There is an important and obvious distinction between condemning a person?s words and punishing that person for saying them. One of the bedrock principles of democracy is that people have the right to say what they think, even if other people don?t like it. Even if it is ? gasp ? politically incorrect.
In our effort to make everybody think nice things about everybody else, we often forget the paramount importance of allowing people to voice opinions that offend us. The fact that we do so is perhaps the greatest threat to free speech in America today.
This threat is far more pernicious than any government repression of free expression. When government treads on the First Amendment, society rises to the defense. But who will defend the the Bill of Rights when society itself attacks?
We should be grateful for people like Horowitz and Mansfield. Their arguments don?t always convince us, but they should remind us of how vigilant and valiant we all must be in defending the right of people everywhere to be controversial.
We should try harder to remember the immortal words of Voltaire, who said, ?I may not agree with a word you say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it.? Only when these words characterize our moments of greatest disagreement will freedom of speech truly be secure.