Campus Free Speech


Excerpt from a September 30 press release:

Sponsored by the UMass Amherst Libraries’ Department of Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA), this year’s Colloquium on Social Change will examine how ideas about social justice have shaped American lives with speakers who represent distinctly different radical challenges to American society.

The press release continues,

On Thursday, November 12, at 7:00 p.m., Ray Luc Levasseur will speak on “Ray Luc Levasseur: Defendant in the Landmark Sedition Trial of Western Mass Returns after 20 Years,” with opening remarks by Bill Newman, the Director of the Western Regional Office of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

The release then describes the speaker as follows,

In 1989, Ray Luc Levasseur and his associates Pat Levasseur and Richard Williams stood trial in Springfield, Mass., on federal charges of seditious conspiracy. After 10 months of deliberation, in the most expensive trial in Massachusetts history, a jury found all three not guilty of conspiring to overthrow the United States government. In his first public address in the Pioneer Valley after serving 20 years in prison for his involvement in a series of bombings carried out to protest what he viewed as U.S. backing of South Africa’s apartheid government and Central American death squads, Levasseur will reflect on his past and present, and the significance of the Springfield Sedition trial.

What the release does not say, according to masslive, a news website, is, “Levasseur, who spent several years in hiding, was part of the United Freedom Front, a group that was charged with eight Boston-area bombings between 1976 and 1979, the murder of a New Jersey state trooper, the attempted murder of a Massachusetts state trooper, several other assaults on law enforcement officers, and several armed bank robberies. Levasseur was not at the scene of the trooper’s shooting and never charged in the murder.”
You know what happened next. Police, state troopers, even the Governor of the Commonwealth, started screeching about a “cop killer” being allowed to shape the young, impressionable minds of UMass Amherst students, and, in something of a surprise move, the hosts of the event—UMass librarians—cancelled Levasseur’s talk. And I suspect you also know what happened after that—those brave defenders of free speech who populate university campuses sprang into action, and voila, just like that, the invitation was reinstated.

Lest you ever, ever doubt the courage and the principled, coherent stands academics take on issues of free speech, here’s UMass President Jack Wilson weighing in on the controversy:

“I am opposed to convicted terrorist Raymond Luc Levasseur speaking at the University of Massachusetts,” college President Jack Wilson said. “The University of Massachusetts stands squarely against the outrageous actions he has committed in the past. As a university, we defend the principles of free speech and of academic freedom. However, we deplore the example Levasseur sets for our students and the University community.” (Boston Herald)

Huh? I’m nominating that gem for the dictionary illustration of “doublespeak.” Bravo, President Wilson!

One of the reasons there is never a dull moment in higher education is that if things get to quiet around the quad, there’s always a free-speech controversy to stir up. Some group—usually but not always, as in this instance, a student group—seeks to bring a controversial speaker to campus. Another group—often but not always also students—gets offended in advance and starts beseeching the administration to shut down the event before it takes place. Need I point out that “administration” consists of those same busy-body bean counters that students and faculty usually keep at arms’ length. That is, until they want something.

There are always two sides to any free speech issue on a college campus. Side one: the free speech hardliners. The spirit of Votaire animates this group. One would be tempted to join their team were it not for the extraordinary narrow band of speech they defend. Case in point, the above-referenced lecture series, which purports to show “how ideas about social justice have shaped American lives with speakers who represent distinctly different radical challenges [emphasis added] to American society.” Never no mind that the deceased subject of one of the speakers and the other speakers themselves all are graying white male relics of the counter-culture ‘60’s, they “represent distinctly different radical challenges to American society.” That feminism was a radical force to be reckoned with in the 1960’s, as was the civil rights movement, as was the founding of the Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative student group, is irrelevant, really, because, hey!, a bunch of warmed-over (except for the dead one) lefties from the most shameful decade in 20th Century American history are here to bring those bad old days up close and personal to the denizens of the W.E.B. DuBois Library. “Distinctly different radical challenges,” my arse. It is exactly the insidiousness of the fatuous platitudes of the free-speechers that riles me. They say one thing, and mean another under the protective albeit perverted mantle of free speech. But don’t get me wrong—I’ll defend to the death their right to do it.

One the other side of the debate, generally, are the sensitivity-censors, who seek to curtail the free-speech rights because somebody, somewhere, might be offended. In this instance, it’s the state police and the governor. They make a compelling case, murder being about as offensive a crime as one can imagine, but it’s also true that this particular jailbird has been set free. Presumably his debt to society has been paid, and his right to spew his invective in the village square that is a public university campus restored. I don’t fault him for trying to make a few bucks on the lecture circuit, although I question both the motives and the intellect of those who invited him.

It is, in fact, rare that the sensitivity-censors have such a clear-cut case, although occasionally they do, as when Columbia University (a private institution that can do as it pleases, unlike UMass) invited Iranian hate-monger/lunatic Ahmadinejad to speak. But the show went on in Morningside Heights, just as it will at UMass. No, more often the sensitivity-censors have an urgent need to prohibit the speech of somebody who might make a racially insensitive comment, who might want to critique the Palestinians, who might want to oppose gay marriage. Those wicked, wicked ideas have no place on a college campus, and if you do not understand that, then you, my friend, are part of the problem. There’s a case to be made for censorship, but hurt feelings or politics that fail to pass the political litmus test are not among them.

Having spent decades working at both private and public institutions, I have had a bellyful of the lot of them, free-speechers and sensitivity-censors alike. Censorship is practiced every minute of every day on college campuses. Every time an acquisitions librarian buys this book instead of that, she’s committing an act of censorship. Only it’s not called it that. It’s called “exercising her professional judgment” and she’s paid to do it! Every time a faculty member puts together a syllabus, she’s engaged in censorship: read this, not that, she’s telling her students. And once again, she is paid to perform this service, her “primary faculty responsibility.” Truly “free speech” on a college campus is a fiction, and that’s not a bad thing.

But when the banner of free speech is raised to the parapets, you can usually be confident that the faculty member hoisting it is also the first to make sweeping derogatory pronouncements about politicians right of Barney Frank, thus making abundantly clear to students just how free their speech really is. One memorable faculty member stands out in my mind. A radical/lesbian/feminist, she was a staunch defender of students’ right to disrupt or walk out of classes; she defended flag-burners (who chose to torch Old Glory during a 9/11 memorial service); and she was a proud and consistent voice for social justice and social change. That she also owned multiple homes in two different countries while living rent-free courtesy of da man, her employer, really does not speak to the sincerity of her radical beliefs, does it? This particular academic played a vicious game with students, colleagues and administrators. Any time she felt like making trouble, she’d gather a band of true-believing students, manipulate them into complaining to the administration, then—get this, I am not, making it up!—play double-agent, coaching the administration on how best to respond to the students. Of course, she’d never put her name to any of the agitprop she’d bamboozled her students into producing, leaving no doubt about the courage of her convictions. Or about how seriously she took the greatest gift of a free society: free speech.

Let me leave you with a few truisms about free speech on campus:
1) Campuses should be bastions of free and open inquiry. Too often they are not.
2) Free speech on a college campus does not mean, nor should it mean, rolling out the welcome mat to every writer or speaker. The educational purpose to be served demands that faculty organize and prioritize knowledge for students. However, there should be a concomitant responsibility to justify any censorious decision. There seldom if ever is.
3) Until the academy itself is willing to hold up the mirror of censorship to its own practices, there will never really be “free speech” on campus. Only invitations to “offensive speakers” that mask the deeper and more disturbing questions of free expression.

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