Free speech, war: Berkeley beat goes on

First Amendment Shmirst Amendment, what does it matter as long as people use a little mother wit, as my father called it? We wouldn't need a constitutional guarantee of free speech if everyone just did the right thing.

All it takes is a touch of class, making the right thing come naturally. But too many are like the Marxian (Groucho Marxian) individual who has "no class and very little of that."

So someone is always putting a foot in it. And someone else is wagging a finger back. Finally someone makes a federal case of it.

Such ramblings are prompted by the furor over Trent Lottism, censored student newspapers, and now what may be the first public airing of something that must happen all the time behind the scenes: the case of the incredible shrinking fundraising letter. A fundraiser puts something in, and an administrator takes it out for policy reasons.

This time, as front-paged by The New York Times on Tuesday, the writer of the letter protested what she called censorship and a professor cited the First Amendment in saying that the administration was "mocking freedom of expression by limiting it."

What the administration took out were two quotations from the early 20th-century radical Emma Goldman in an appeal for funds by the Emma Goldman Papers Project at the University of California at Berkeley. One quote from 1902 warned of threats to free speech. One from 1915 called for protest against war. These were considered too political by the university, according to the Times, at a time the country is preparing for possible war against Iraq. The Berkeley campus was a hive of free speech activity during the '60s. An assistant vice chancellor said removing the quotations wasn't a matter of free speech but of difference of opinion. He said the decision did not rise to the chancellor level.

How did it rise to the level of national news? One factor is the choice of bygone words with relevance to today. But why would a fundraiser quote words not relevant to today or to potential donors?

Suppose someone were writing a fundraising letter for a George Washington archive. Only higher authority short on mother wit would remove what Washington said to the officers of the Army in 1783 because it might have relevance to 2003: "If men are to be precluded from offering their sentiments on a matter which may involve the most serious and alarming consequences that can invite the consideration of mankind, reason is of no use to us; the freedom of speech may be taken away, and dumb and silent we may be led like sheep to the slaughter."

Does a First Amendment have to hover over us for people to offer pertinent words from the past and to protest when others exercise their prerogative of removing them? I know, I know, we wouldn't need the SEC, labor unions or - for heaven's sake - thepolice if everyone did the right thing.

Quoting from history is where mother wit and a touch of class could do the work of the law.

We've all grown up knowing that free speech does not legally extend to shouting "fire" in a crowded theater. But we know it through plain common sense, too.

Making Emma Goldman relevant to Goldman givers doesn't seem to an outsider any more like shouting "fire" than making Washington relevant to potential Washington donors. But a university may have other fish - or fat cats - to fry. These are matters to be threshed out by the parties concerned. It's not the same as punishing students or faculty or anyone else for speaking out in public. It's not the same as equating patriotism with conformity.

After Sept. 11, the Emma Goldman Papers Project was not hindered from sending out a bookmark with Goldman's 1912 words: "Out of the chaos, the future emerges in harmony and beauty."

But the harmony and beauty of many individual acts and attitudes have been accompanied by enough uncertainties in public debate to make the still free media concerned about private debate, too. That's why a fundraising letter echoes beyond the writers of checks, who have their own mother wit to call on in the controversy.

Roderick Nordell was a longtime editor at the Monitor.

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