Bill Newman: Hampshire College’s band snub insults First Amendment
NORTHAMPTON — At a Hampshire College faculty meeting 20 years ago, a professor introduced a motion to affirm “the right of all members of the College community to the free expression of views in speech or in art,” the right of all at Hampshire “to hear … views or to view art without censorship.” The motion went on to state that non-criminal expression should be protected on Hampshire’s campus “without regard to the positions or perspectives embodied in that speech or art.”
At a liberal arts college you might think the faculty would support such a foundational statement. But you’d be wrong. Dead wrong.
Some faculty vociferously objected because the endorsement of free speech only took account of one side of the argument and was reactionary. One professor dismissed the importance of free expression because “the First Amendment was written by a rich, white, male slave owner.” After the faculty, by a small margin, defeated the motion, the college president cautioned against allowing the outside world to learn about that vote. The meeting, however, eventually was revealed in “The Shadow University: The Betrayal Of Liberty On America’s Campuses,” co-authored by attorney Harvey Silverglate.
Now, 20 years after that faculty meeting, Hampshire once again has sacrificed free expression. Here’s what happened: On Oct. 7, the college hired an afro-funk band, Shokazoba, to play at a Halloween party. Two days before the show, some Hampshire students posted remarks on the Facebook event wall, asserting that it was inappropriate to hire what they mistakenly described as an all-white afro-beat band — notwithstanding that the band has performed since 2005 at, among other venues, black clubs in Harlem. In response, the band’s lead singer, who is African-American, posted to try to clear the air. She was accused of not being black enough.
A Hampshire dean explained to members of the band, who had sought a meeting, that they deserved to be cancelled because of their inflammatory remarks on the Facebook event wall. When band members asked the dean to point to any such remark, she couldn’t because they had made none. When the final band member arrived on campus to attend that meeting, he was met by campus police who ordered him to leave or face arrest.
Over the past week, faculty, students and administrators at Hampshire have proffered various explanations and justifications for the censorship: The band made statements that allegedly furthered post-racial and color-blind ideologies. This was viewed by Hampshire administrators as “unacceptable.” The Facebook administrators for the event page failed to immediately take down inflammatory and racist statements from a non-Hampshire student who had nothing to do with the band.
Those on campus pushing to censor Shokazoba highlighted this remark by a band member as requiring the band to be banned: “Are we not, in actuality, all different shades of brown? Has it not become abundantly clear that we are a world community that needs to support each other in art and love — not in derisiveness? We play afro-beat inspired music with love, and respect. We would create our art with historical and cultural appreciation, and with an intention of bringing people together regardless of individual socio-economic background or ethnocentric origin.”
The genesis of the demand to ban Shokazoba was the accusation that its afro-funk music makes them guilty of “cultural appropriation.”
Where does that line of thinking end? Is it all right for people of diverse backgrounds and integrated music groups to play blues, rock ’n roll or jazz at Hampshire College? Are Eminem, Sly and the Family Stone, Booker T and The MGs, and Paul Simon now banned?
One Hampshire College response to the coverage in the Huffington Post offered a slightly different, sleight-of-hand justification — that a band member verbally reacted badly after the band was accused of cultural appropriation. Sorry, that doesn’t wash. Words are words. Censorship — theoretically anyway — stands as the antitheses of Hampshire’s values, and censorship cannot be condoned as an acceptable antidote for words you don’t like.
In an email, students, faculty and administrators who succeeded in having Hampshire cancel Shokazoba celebrated their successful censorship. They seem to have no conception how much freedom their supposed victory has actually cost or how sad an occasion this has been.
Bill Newman of Northampton writes a monthly column.