The Washington Post
Friday, November 15, 1996
page A30 (Editorial)

Free Speech and Common Sense

If they gave out awards for maintaining one's common sense in the middle of a dust-up involving a campus newspaper, one of the very few would have to go to Kirby Reed, president of the student government at George Mason University. After the student newspaper there, the Broadside, chose to publish an opinion column by a sometime contributor that was filled with obnoxiously racist statements, Mr. Kirby told Post reporter Tara Mack he was glad the editors had chosen to let it run, because "it if weren't published, many people would believe there is no racism at the university."

You can agree or not with Mr. Reed's premise and still admire this concise statement of what school after school completely missed during the misguided, now thankfully fading, era of campus speech codes and competing shouts of "political correctness". No one would be likely to dismiss as merely politically "incorrect" the ugly sentiments expressed by student John Paul Wright in his article, which speculated as to whether African American rioters were capable of reason and whether they should be "chained down". But whereas other such forays into hatefulness have brought crackdowns of various kinds, this one drew a different kind of reaction from Conaway Haskins, the editor of the opinion page, who decided the article was provocative rather than outright libelous and printed it.

Mr. Haskins, who is African American, ended up effectively demonstrating by this action something that college students, not to mention adults, frequently take longer to figure out: The way to defuse and, importantly, sometimes combat offensive expression is not necessarily to bottle it up. Mr. Wright did not, like some notorious undergraduate predecessors at Dartmouth, Penn, and elsewhere, become lionized by outsiders as a victim of censorship. Instead, like the three Cornell sophomores who rashly posted their views about women on the Internet last winter, he found himself refuted from all sides and effectively squelched. (The other day, he wrote apologizing for his cruder statements.) Mr. Haskins did not find himself defending censorship, and though many students black and white undoubtedly found the words hurtful, some, like Mr. Reed (who is also African American), found ways the hurtfulness might be considered helpful as well.

The incident may further deflate a pet notion on some campuses that free speech, far from liberating people, in fact interferes with others' right to expression (and therefore, of course, must be sometimes curtailed). Incidents such as this one suggest, on the contrary, that the principle of free speech is not just a pretty idea but one that must be allowed to work.


Copyright © 1996 by The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.