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Who Can Say What

 By Wendy Kaminer      

        When the Anti Defamation League objects to blackballing a speaker accused of anti-Semitism, you know the speech police have gone too far.  So it wasn’t surprising when the president of St. Thomas College in Minnesota apologized for vetoing a speaking invitation to Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a sometime critic of Israel.  University president, Rev. Dennis J. Dease, explained that his initial opposition to inviting Bishop Tutu had reflected concerns about offending members of the Jewish community.  As a university spokesman said at the time, “We didn’t want to use our financial resources and space and facilities and personnel to bring someone here who has said things that were hurtful to the Jewish community.

        Fortunately, criticism of Reverend Dease’s decision by St. Thomas faculty, editorial writers, and bloggers was swift, unstinting, and a little bemused: On the Huffington Post, Coleen Rowley noted that “the very same campus had welcomed right-wing hate monger Ann Coulter a couple of years ago.”  (But that was before Coulter said that Jews needed to be "perfected" into Christians.)

        That public pressure resulted in an apology from the university president (and a new, if by now moot invitation to Archbishop Tutu) was a small victory for free speech.  But it’s unclear whether the faculty member who was demoted when she expressed her disapproval of the original ban on Desmond Tutu has been reinstated.  And it’s difficult to know whether the reaction to this ban was, in fact, a defense of free speech or a defense of Desmond Tutu – and the right to criticize Israel.  What if an invitation to a less revered and more maligned speaker had been vetoed?  And what if the veto didn’t reflect squeamishness about criticizing Israel, an increasingly controversial political phenomenon?  (The ADL might have stepped into this fray on the side of speech because it recognized that Tutu's remarks about Israel were not nearly as bad for the Jews as the perception that a powerful Jewish lobby was preventing him from being heard.)  

        Meanwhile, elsewhere the crusade to silence those speakers deemed hateful or offensive continues.  As far as I know, the University of California at Davis has not apologized for rescinding a speaking invitation to former Harvard president Lawrence Summers: the invitation to speak at a Regents dinner was rescinded in response to a petition circulated by female faculty.  In fact, the blackballing of Summers has been vigorously defended by two U.C faculty members. While referencing his “insulting and uninformed opinions … about women scientists,” they claim that the invitation to Summers was attacked and rightly retracted because he’d been invited to speak at a private dinner and not in public, where his presumptively hateful views could be refuted.  Apparently, the Regents are expected to refrain from privately entertaining speakers who have not been pre-approved by concerned faculty.  The orthodox feminist lobby apparently exerts a lot more power at U.C. Davis that any pro-Israel lobby enjoys at St. Thomas.

        But putting aside the differing outcomes in these cases, they each exemplify the same dangerous trend: The popular notion of hate speech is no longer generally limited to epithets, slurs, and schoolyard taunts; it is now broad enough to encompass substantive and unquestionably civil discourse on controversial policy issues.   Desmond Tutu criticizes Israel, and the administration at St. Thomas College instinctively vetoes a proposal to invite him to speak, as they might veto a speaking invitation to David Duke.  Larry Summers raises a question about natural cognitive differences between the sexes, (at a private, academic conference, no less) and feminist anti-libertarians put him on a blacklist with Larry Flynt.

        At U.C. Davis, this very broad definition of forbidden speech is practically codified.  While the university deceptively professes to value free expression, its policies declare (most inaccurately) that “no one has the right to denigrate another human being on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, physical capability, or any other difference.  (Actually, everyone has an unquestionable First Amendment right to denigrate everyone else on the basis of every imaginable bias.)  The university also effectively equates verbal abuse (whatever that is) with physical assaults, promising that “Verbal or written abuse (including e-mail and instant messaging), threats, harassment, physical assault, intimidation, or other forms of violence against any member or group of members of your community will not be tolerated.”  Given that Summers’s speculations about cognitive sexual difference were deemed “insulting” by some protesting U.C faculty, it’s not hard to imagine that they might also be classified as verbal abuse.

        It’s depressingly easy to imagine the degradation of inquiry and debate at a university that values inoffensiveness over intellectual provocation.  Since it isn’t possible to engage in a spirited or thoughtful discussion of a heated controversy without offending some community or other, colleges and universities that do not vigorously defend the right to give offense, and the value of being willing to offend, risk transforming themselves into the sort of partisan echo chambers that dominate talk radio and cable tv, where hate speech is whatever speech the target audience hates to hear.


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