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News - The tyranny of hecklers

Campus censors are wrong — whatever their political persuasion

For those who warn that the present-day political climate endangers freedom of speech and dissent in America, the controversy around New York Times reporter Chris Hedges' commencement address last month at Rockford College in Illinois is an alarming case in point.

Hedges, a war correspondent who sharply criticized the war in Iraq, had to cut his speech short after he was repeatedly interrupted by boos and his microphone was unplugged twice. Is it disturbing to find such intolerance on a college campus? Of course. But this "war on free speech," to quote the title of one newspaper column on the subject, did not begin with the Sept. 11 attacks. It has been waged for years, primarily by the campus left against politically incorrect beliefs.

Some conservatives, such as Washington Times editor-in-chief Wesley Pruden, have all but cheered the Rockford hecklers as average Americans who gave a liberal elitist a piece of their mind. These commentators scoff at the notion that free speech is at stake: In Pruden's words, nothing can "guarantee a speaker that his audience will like what he says or prevent the audience from rewarding him with the boo of the month."

But that's a sadly misguided response. The hecklers didn't just express their distaste for Hedges' speech; they actively, and successfully, tried to silence him.

Hedges is not an especially sympathetic figure. Regardless of the political content of his speech, its tone was smug and condescending. Moreover, critics who call him a propagandist in journalist's clothing may not be off base. Hedges' 1991 article on Palestine in Harper's magazine was filled with venomous anti-Israel bias, including the claim that Israeli soldiers murder Palestinian children "for sport." While his speech at Rockford was not quite the anti-American diatribe some conservatives make it out to be, it certainly leaned toward the view that the West is the root of all evil in the world today.

But in such a case, one must apply Voltaire's well-worn dictum: "I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it."

"Heckling is a form of censorship, and it is not acceptable," says Thor Halvorssen, chief executive officer of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which defends free speech in the academy regardless of politics. However, Halvorssen sees a double standard in the hand wringing. How many of the people who bemoan the death of free speech in "George Bush's America" have criticized campus codes that restrict speech deemed offensive to women or minorities? How many have spoken out against the suppression of dissenting views from the right? On some college campuses, entire print runs of conservative student newspapers have been stolen and burned, with no punishment for the perpetrators. Speakers such as Ward Connerly, the African-American activist who opposes racial preferences, have been shouted down on numerous occasions.

In 1998, after nonviolent but raucous student protests, Columbia University essentially shut down the second day of a two-day conference called Conservative Ideas in Higher Education." Citing "safety" concerns, the university told the organizers that only Columbia students would be admitted to the sessions — even though many non-students and students from other colleges had already paid to attend.

The organizers instead moved the event to a nearby park, where hecklers stopped at least one speaker, author Dinesh D'Souza, from finishing his remarks. A Columbia senior defended these actions in a letter to the student daily, asserting that "the groups' agenda exacerbates human suffering, and we therefore have an obligation to stop it by any means necessary."

Many left-wing academics openly espouse a double standard when it comes to speech. Daphne Patai, a professor of comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, tells a revealing anecdote in the recent edition of her book (co-written with Noretta Koertge), Professing Feminism: Education and Indoctrination in Women's Studies. Shortly after Sept. 11, Ann Ferguson, former chair of the university's Women's Studies department, circulated a statement deploring pressures that kept faculty and students from voicing unpopular opinions such as opposition to the war in Afghanistan. Since Ferguson had earlier championed a speech code targeting broad categories of "offensive" expression, Patai e-mailed her, asking to explain this contradiction.

Ferguson's response? "Sometimes speech is harmful action, and when so should not be automatically protected."

Speaking in New York a few days after the Rockford fiasco, Hedges said that societies where speakers are shouted down are called "tyrannies" and that it was "depressing" to have this happen in the United States. Fair enough. But tyranny in the name of diversity or equality is just as bad as tyranny in the name of patriotism.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine and a columnist at the Boston Globe.



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