Setting Fire to Offensive Ideas


Last spring the Cornell Review, a conservative student publication, published a parody–a description, in ebonics, of courses that might be taught in Cornell’s Africana Studies and Resource Center.

An excerpt from a prospective course, “Racism in American Society”: “Da white man be evil an he tryin to keep da brotherman down. We’s got Sharpton an Farakhan, so who da white man now, white boy?…We ain’t gots to axe da white man for nothin in dis class.”

Obviously the parody was intended to offend and insult. And indeed, I would call it racist, as did many black students at Cornell. The authors of the parody deny it was intended to be racist. But Rosa Clemente, a first-year graduate student, spoke for many of the angry targets of the parody: “I’m tired of asking for my humanity.”

At a protest rally, a shouting chorus also expressed the indignation of some of the black students: “The Review! The Review! The Review is on fire! We don’t need no water, let the motherfucker burn!”

By then, issues of the Cornell Review were actually on fire. Students infuriated by the parody had snatched about 200 copies and, at the rally, burned some in a trash basket.

When Ying Ma, a former president of the Cornell Review, tried to speak at the protesters’ rally, she was forcibly prevented. People associated with the Cornell Review had no right to speak. To emphasize the point, some of the demonstators tossed the basket of the burning Cornell Reviews in the direction of Ying Ma’s face.

To bring the war against offensive speech outside the immediate campus, about 200 Cornell students blocked access to a key intersection, thereby stopping traffic from 4:30 to 9 p.m.

While the destruction of the newspapers was going on, not a single faculty member, including in the law school–so far as I can find out–told the arsonists that the way to answer bad and hateful speech is with more speech–not with a match.

A similar caricature in a George Mason University fraternity skit angered black students there–but when the case went to court, the fraternity was not held liable for breaking any civil rights or defamation law. Said Virginia federal district judge Claude Hilton: “The First Amendment does not recognize exceptions for bigotry, racism and religious intolerance, or ideas or matters some may deem trivial, vulgar or profane.” (Emphasis added.)

Cornell, being a private university, is not covered by the First Amendment. But until recent years, Cornell has been a school with a commitment to free exchange of all kinds of ideas–in the spirit of the First Amendment.

When I lectured there years ago, I enjoyed both the students’ robust dissents and their willingness to at least consider hitherto unthinkable ideas. More recently, however, I found the campus had stiffened into racial camps, due in part to the administration having yielded to demands for theme housing–blacks in one place, Hispanics in another, Native Americans in yet another.

This self-segregation also continues outside the separate residences, solidifying the tribalism. Before I left the campus the last time, I was going through a newspaper published by some black students. From boyhood on, I read a lot of anti-Semitic materials, but this was the most vicious, historically ignorant attack on all Jews, from time immemorial, that I have ever seen. It went beyond anything even Farrakhan has said.

Of course, that hatred of Jews should not have been censored. It’s important to know who the anti-Semites are and what they’re saying. I’ve read other demonizing articles about Jews in black publications at UCLA, Michigan State, and other colleges where the administrations have done nothing to open up real, continuing dialogue between the tribes. (White students can also be tribal.)

* By and large, college presidents and deans–especially at prestigious schools–are afraid to do or say anything that might subject them to being called racist. And so they do not, for the most part, penalize such actions by black students as stealing and burning newspapers.

* For further example, there was the theft at the University of Pennsylvania of 14,000 (!) copies of the mainstream college paper, The Daily Pennsylvanian. The paper had published a columnist who black students said was racist. So those students violated the free-press rights of the paper to publish as well as the right of its readers to read it.

* The then president of the university, Sheldon Hackney, did nothing to even reprimand the student thieves because, he said, there was an equal conflict between diversity on campus and the newspaper’s right to open expression.

So, free expression of ideas, once central to a university, became far less a priority than pandering to black students on campus.

As I wrote in the Voice, “To reach the utterly shallow notion that diversity and open expression are in chronic conflict is to set up yet another prejudicial stereotype of blacks and Latinos. These black students–so the reasoning goes–cannot be expected to take full responsibility for their actions.”

Because they are black, the rationale goes, they do not have the self-control to rebut the offending articles with writing and speech of their own.

What Sheldon Hackney did was to say that black students can’t be penalized for acting against their “nature.” Now that is racism!

One person was punished after the theft of 14,000 papers. He was a guard at the university museum. His crime: he tried to stop a band of students, their hands full of stolen newspapers, from running away. He was charged with “overreaction.”

Nearly everybody in the law faculty at the University of Pennsylvania criticized the president for his cowardice: “This was a violation of freedom of thought and freedom of dissent and freedom of discussion, silencing those with whom they disagree….This is a direct denial of the university’s basic mission.”

Next week: My interview with the dean of students at Cornell and a soft-shoe dance by that university’s president. Also: feminist vigilantes on campus.

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting the Village Voice and our advertisers.