Its a common sight at the modern university. A group of leftist students storms the stage, shutting down a speaker about to depart from campus orthodoxy. Or perhaps a sound system gets unplugged, or pies fly. Instead of restoring order, campus security officers shrug and give up. The amateur censors then leap about jubilantly, feeling empowered. The university administration issues a few tut-tuts, underlines its safely abstract commitment to free speech, and then does nothing.
This familiar scenario unfolded at Columbia University on October 4. Students, many from the Chicano Caucus and the International Socialist Organization, stormed the stage during a speech by Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minuteman Project, knocking over chairs and tables, preventing Gilchrist and a colleague from speaking. Amid the pandemonium, the students unfurled a banner heralding no one is illegal and chanted Minutemen, Nazis, KKKracist fascists go away.
As usual, the censors portray themselves as victims. Karina Garcia of the Chicano Caucus said that she and her comrades were targets of a massive campaign of vilification and demonization. The socialist groups Monique Dols said the Minutemen, in scrambling to defend themselves, were guilty of a violent backlash . . . in the same tradition of the attackers in Birmingham and Montgomery. Gilchrist was Bull Connor.
The New York Times unhelpfully described the Minutemen as fiercely anti-immigrant (not true: the group backs legal immigration) and given to hotheaded rhetoric (also untrue). Minutemen volunteers began patrolling the Arizona-Mexico border in 2004, watching for illegal immigrants and pointing them out to federal authorities. Since then, chapters have sprouted nationwide to protest the failure to stem the tide of illegals.
Columbia president Lee Bollinger, a First Amendment scholar, called the student disruption one of the most serious breaches of academic faith that can occur at a university. The Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) was unimpressed. It referred caustically to Bollingers say one thing, do another act and noted that Columbia has a long and distinguished record of suppression of free speech. Mayor Michael Bloomberg offered similarly blunt words on his weekly radio show: Bollingers just got to get his hands around this. . . . There are too many incidents at the same school where people get censored.
Any list of Columbias greatest antifree speech hits would include a professor in the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department threatening to throw a Jewish student out of his class after she asked a pointed question that made clear the pro-Palestinian bias of his argument, and the severe penalty imposed on the schools hockey team for using an off-color word on recruitment flyers (Dont be a pussy. Play Columbia hockey). The university canceled the teams season and put it on probation until 2009. In typical campus fashion, the school said that it wasnt censoring speech but merely disciplining the team for not following procedures. After protests, Columbia backed down a bit and allowed the hockey season to continue.
In 2000, Columbia introduced an Orwellian sexual misconduct policy. Liberal First Amendment champion Nat Hentoff called it the most repressive he had seen. Under its terms, students under investigation had no right to confront accusers, be present during testimony, or have an attorney present. The school also banned accused students from investigating charges themselves. If they tried to line up their own witnesses, they would face a new disciplinary hearing.
Also in 2000, after a group of women objected to a hypothetical on a criminal-law exam, the school threatened George Fletcher, Cardozo Professor of Jurisprudence, with disciplinary action. Law school dean David Leebron told Fletcher that his test question may have violated harassment law and created a hostile environment.
When Accuracy in Academia planned a set of campus speeches by conservatives (including me) a while back, Columbia deliberately undermined the meeting, demanding a last-minute $3,200 security deposit and, once it was paid, ruling that only Columbia students could go. This ruling not only violated the universitys contract with AIA; it effectively shut down the event, since two-thirds of the attendees were coming from other schools.
Most of Columbias censoring actions have wound up publicly muffled by garbled reporting in the New York Times (the sexual misconduct policy) or total non-reporting (the AIA adventure). But in the censoring of the Minutemen, an important politician spoke out, and videotape of the disruption played for days on the Internet. The university, of course, says that it is studying the issue. But maybe this time Bollingeror his boardwill have to act.