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Campuses struggle to define free speech

By Kim Campbell and Noel C. Paul Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / March 27, 2001

The issue of free speech is getting a sharp test on America's college campuses.

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At universities from Berkeley to Brown, a controversial ad placed in campus newspapers has pitted student publications against their readers, and freedom of expression against perceived racism.

In response to the ad, which argues against giving reparations for slavery to African-Americans, student groups have protested - in one case taking thousands of papers to keep the message from getting out. Some editors have apologized for the ad, angering free-speech defenders.

The conundrum has highlighted the difficulties campuses face as they try to foster both racial sensitivity and free debate. And it's left educators and students wondering if the image of college as a place where all views can be heard is just a 1960s ideal.

"There is less discussion of controversial issues on college campuses than anywhere else in society, and that's a tragedy," says Harvey Silverglate, co-author of "The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses."

Colleges are much more diverse than they were 40 years ago. But some experts say that just as students are being asked to be more accepting of one another, they have become less tolerant of viewpoints that challenge their own, or are not considered "politically correct."

Administrators are part of the problem, say critics like Mr. Silverglate, an attorney and adviser to Brown's student chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. He says schools are imposing more rules about speech that is considered harassing and looking the other way when students take actions that suppress views, like stealing papers.

Don't like today's issue? Steal it.

Theft of college papers has increased dramatically in the last decade, according to the Washington-based Student Press Law Center, which advises high school and college papers on their First Amendment rights. Before a high-profile case of paper theft in 1993 at the University of Pennsylvania, there were about a half-dozen incidents of theft per year. Since then, the number has ranged from a dozen to as many as 40 in an academic year.

The pattern suggests that the definition of open discussion on campuses is changing. More students respond with disbelief and anger at the utterance of unpopular opinions, educators say.

Nearly 30 campus newspapers decided not to run the anti-reparations ad offered by conservative pundit David Horowitz. But on many of the 13 campuses where the ad has appeared - including the University of California at Berkeley and at Davis, Brown University in Providence, R.I., the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Duke University in Durham, N.C. - protesters have charged papers with being insensitive to African-American heritage and complicating efforts to help racial groups reach common ground.

"It really angered me because ... this created more of a rift between the various students on campus," says Goldie Pritchard, a student of West African descent at UC-Davis who works at the campus Cross-Cultural Center. "I think it's important to have a dialogue, but there are people who will take that [ad] at face value and not look at the whole picture."

Some student objectors have taken action to make sure their opposition to the ad is heard, storming college papers' offices and, in the case of Brown, taking virtually an entire press run of 4,000 papers. Since then, several editions carrying the ad have circulated.

The stealing of papers troubled Carl Takei, the head of Brown's chapter of the ACLU. He and other students formed an organization called Students of Color Against Censorship shortly after the papers were taken and took out their own ad in The Brown Daily Herald.

"We were horrified that a group of students acting in the name of the minority community was suppressing dialogue and censoring opposing viewpoints," Mr. Takei says. "We don't believe that viewpoints should be censored because people find them offensive."