Speech, Free and Subsidized

Today a number of rightie bloggers are complaining that a conservative student newspaper at Tufts University has been found guilty of “harassment” by the Student Life Committee, allegedly for publishing racist and anti-Islamic smears. Here is what the conservative student newspaper says about it:

Showing profound disregard for free speech and freedom of the press, Tufts University has found a conservative student publication guilty of harassment and creating a hostile environment for publishing political satire. Despite explicitly promising to protect controversial and offensive expression in its policies, the Tufts Committee on Student Life decided yesterday to punish the student publication The Primary Source (TPS) for printing two articles that offended African-American and Muslim students on campus. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which has spearheaded the defense of TPS, is now launching a public campaign to oppose Tufts’ outrageous actions.

From the Tufts University web site:

The Committee on Student Life (CSL) today released a decision finding The Primary Source, Tufts’ conservative journal, guilty of harassment and creating a hostile environment.

As a result of the verdict, all pieces in the Source must now be attributed to specific authors. The CSL, which is comprised of students and faculty members, also recommended that “student governance consider the behavior of student groups in future decisions concerning funding and recognition,” according to a copy of the decision that was sent to the Daily.

Today’s result stems from an April 30 hearing during which two separate cases against the Source were heard. In one, David Dennis, an African-American senior, said that the Source’s Dec. 6 carol “O Come All Ye Black Folk” constituted harassment and the creation of a hostile environment. In the other, the Muslim Students Association brought the same two charges against The Primary Source for its April 11 piece “Islam – Arabic Translation: Submission.” Both of these Source pieces were unsigned.

Regarding the content of the offensive material, I mostly agree with what Fontana Labs says at Unfogged:

My initial inclination is to say that while publishing this sort of thing is irritating and nasty– like its predecessor, the satirical carol “Oh come all ye black folk,” this item isn’t really intended to spark an interesting conversation so much as it’s intended to marginalize people who get enough of that already– it’s not the sort of thing that should be banned by harassment policies.

Part of the difficulty here, I think, is the tendency for college students in general and “Campus Conservative” types in particular to be a little bit too attracted to the idea of stomping on sacred cows no matter what the day-to-day effects. This unfortunate attachment is just increased by going the official-sanction route. Fantastic: more conservative students who are bitter about being kept down by The Man.

My general view is that colleges and universities have an understandably janus-faced view of student agency: sometimes they’re adults, sometimes they’re not. This puts the institution in the awkward position of officially endorsing the virtues of autonomy and free expression while inconsistently applying pressure on uncomfortable exercises of this freedom.

He’s probably right about that. Even though the offensive material has all the literary and intellectual value of used kitty litter, these children conservative students just get even uglier when they feel oppressed. Better to let them get the bile out of their systems and into public view. Thirty years from now some of them will run for political office, and then their opponents will dig up this muck and leak it to news media, and then they’ll be sorry.

The conservative students argue that since their Muslim piece was factual, it can’t be censored.

A panel consisting of both faculty and students found the publication guilty in flagrant abuse of what harassment case law and regulations actually say, and demonstrating total ignorance of the principles of a free society. Even in libel law (one of the oldest exceptions to the rule of free speech is that you can be punished for defaming people) truth is rightfully an absolute defense. Here, the fact that TPS printed verifiable information—with citations—was apparently no defense, nor was the fact that the ad concerned contentious issues of dire global importance. Such an anemic conception of free speech should chill anyone who cares about basic rights and democracy itself.

See what I mean about getting uglier when they feel oppressed? But this argument has two weaknesses.

I understand this newspaper was chartered and funded by the university’s Student Life department. If that’s not true, then what the students put in their newspaper ain’t none of the Student Life department’s business. If it is true, then in effect the Student Life department is the newspaper’s publisher. And publishers, right or wrong, do get the last word on what goes into the publication. That’s not censorship or libel; that’s capitalism. Writers and editors who work for all kinds of publications in the real grown-up world often have very little freedom to write and publish whatever they want. They write and publish what the publisher says they can write or publish.

Student newspaper staffs are forever overstepping the bounds of the principal’s or dean of student’s taste and getting into trouble for it, and the students eternally holler they are being censored, but in reality the youngun’s are assuming a lot more freedom than they’ll have if they go into journalism or publishing when they grow up.

I agree with the conservative student that what they published probably was not libelous, as I understand libel law, but I don’t think that was the problem the Student Life people had with it. The Student Life group thought it created a hostile campus environment for black and Muslim students, which is a different issue from libel.

I can appreciate how nasty it is to be in a hostile environment, but whether the conservative student newspaper by itself was rendering all of campus life hostile is a judgment call. As much as I sympathize with the black student who complained about the racist piece, sometimes it can be a mistake in the long run to enforce the rules of polite society too rigidly. Sometimes you just drive the ugliness underground where it festers out of sight and becomes even more dangerous.

Even though the conservative students put a disclaimer in their publication that their views do not reflect the views of Tufts University, in reality I believe it’s still a publication of Tufts University. If someone were to sue the newspaper for damages — I don’t think that would apply in this case, but let’s pretend — any money rewarded by a court would, I assume, come out of the university’s hide. So I have some sympathy with the university in this case, and I disagree that students have an absolute right to publish anything in a student newspaper.

The moral is, if you want the unfettered freedom to write and publish any damn fool thing you want, you have to pay for it yourself.

My second quibble with the conservative student is his assumption that factuality and truth are the same thing. Alas, it ain’t necessarily so.

It’s the oldest propagandist trick in the world to present carefully selected facts to tell a lie. You could, for example, pick through a biography of Adolf Hitler and compile a list of completely factual statements that would make Hitler himself seem like a perfectly nice guy. You’d have to leave out the part about the Holocaust and World War II, of course, but it could be done.

The point is that an isolated statement may be completely true and still be used to say something that is not the truth. And someday maybe I’ll elaborate on that, but not right now.

Don’t Blame Vietnam

Atrios has a couple of posts up, here and here, that question the myth that being against the Vietnam War somehow destroyed the Democratic Party. He writes,

For the record, in the 1974 election, before the full end of the war but certainly after the Democrats had become tainted by antiwarness the democrats picked up 49 seats in the House, increasing their majority to 291-144. In the Senate they picked up 3, for a total of 61.

This did follow the 1972 election where, yes, they lost 13 whole seats in the House, leaving them with only 242 seats. That year they gained 2 seats in the Senate, giving them a total of 56.

And then came the 1976 election, post-war, where Democrats picked up the presidency, 1 House seat, and stayed even in the Senate. …

…I’m sure someone has written about this, and maybe it reaches back farther than I remember, but this whole “Vietnam destroyed the Democrats” myth seems to be one which has recently taken hold. I don’t remember it from my teens, though I do remember that Jane Fonda sold a very popular line of exercise videos.

I’ve written about this before. See, for example, “Don’t Blame McGovern” and “Don’t Blame McGovern II.” It is not true, as some would have you believe, that George McGovern lost the 1972 election to Richard Nixon because McGovern was anti-war and Nixon was pro-war.

First, unlike our current Creature in the Oval Office, in 1972 Nixon fully acknowledged that it was time to withdraw combat troops from Vietnam and was in the process of doing so on election day. Of course, Nixon could have done the same thing four years earlier, and today the Vietnam Memorial would be only half as wide. (Indeed, as we now know that Nixon sabotaged Lyndon Johnson’s peace initiatives so that he could run against the war, were it not for Nixon the wall would be very small, indeed.)

Nixon was elected to his first term in 1968 in part because he promised to end the war in Vietnam. You can argue that in 1968 Nixon was the “peace” candidate, in fact. His Democratic opponent, Hubert Humphrey, had been Lyndon Johnson’s Vice President, and of course in 1968 Vietnam was Lyndon Johnson’s War. I doubt Humphrey would have continued LBJ’s policies, but in 1968 there was widespread belief that he would.

But Nixon’s first term dragged on, and the war was escalated and then de-escalated, but didn’t end. Unlike Bush, however, Nixon was not holding out for some hazily defined “victory,” but rather “peace with honor,” meaning he wanted to wring some concessions out of the North Vietnamese before we left so that the U.S. wouldn’t lose face. But just about half of the U.S. military deaths of Vietnam — half of the people named on the wall — died while Nixon was diddling around. By the time McGovern began to campaign for the nomination, at least some people were saying the hell with honor; let’s just get the bleep out.

But in 1972 Nixon and Kissinger were very openly trying to end the war before the election. And just a week before the 1972 general election and Nixon’s landslide victory, Henry Kissinger held a press conference at the White House and declared that “peace is at hand.” The warring parties were right on the edge of a peace agreement, he said. This announcement turned out to be a tad premature, but Americans didn’t find out until after the election.

So, you see, this was not at all parallel with the current state of affairs.

As I discussed in the original “Don’t Blame McGovern” posts, McGovern’s candidacy had several strikes against it that had nothing to do with the war. Notable among these was the visible dumping of his original Vice Presidential candidate, the late Thomas Eagleton of Missouri. But there were several other problems that you can read about in the old posts and that I’m not going to go into here.

As Atrios argues, although McGovern was badly trounced, election results overall from the 1970s just don’t show a clear pattern of the Dems getting punished wholesale at the polls for Vietnam. The Republican Party didn’t really begin its ascent into dominance until Reagan was elected in 1980. That was seven years after the last U.S. combat troop was withdrawn from Vietnam, and five years after the fall of Hanoi. Saigon.

So why did the Democratic Party fall apart? In short, the party had been sustained since FDR’s time by the New Deal coalition, and that coalition collapsed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Certainly Vietnam was a factor, but so was the counterculture, and the civil rights movement, and the feminist movement, and the New Left generally. I’ve spelled this out in detail in the past; see, for example:

“Hey, Hey, LBJ …”

How the Democrats Lost Their Spines

How the Democrats Lost, Period

Can Dems Find Their Mojo?”

There are many factors that came together in the 1960s and 1970s that resulted in a weakened, spineless, and soulless Democratic Party. I explain these in detail in the posts above, which I wrote as a kind of series last August. But there are two major factors I’d like to point out:

In the 1970s and 1980s, white voters left the Dem Party in droves and began to vote Republican, mostly because Nixon, Reagan, and others did a bang-up job exploiting racism. I think the racist backlash to Dem support of civil rights and antipoverty programs cost Democrats far more, in the long run, than the war in Vietnam did.

Second, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, New Left ideologies discouraged young activists from getting involved in party politics. Instead, progressivism broke up into single-issue advocacy movements that competed with each other for funds and attention. The New Deal coalition dissolved, nothing took its place, and the Democratic Party itself lost clear identity and purpose. IMO it’s important to look hard at this second issue, because I see a lot of activists today making the same mistakes the New Left made years ago.