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Bill Newman: Hampshire College’s band snub insults First Amendment

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.


Bill Newman: Echoes of a 1988 case in Hampshire College’s action

Friday, November 1, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — In 1988 I called the renowned civil liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate for advice: Should I accept the offer to open and run an American Civil Liberties Union office here? Harvey told me I should “because,” he explained, “you get to dance with angels.” The phone had hardly settled back in its cradle before two University of Massachusetts groups, …

Legacy Comments8

No "cultural appropriation," no culture, period. It is precisely the inter-play and adaptation of musical styles that makes and keeps music vital and ever-evolving. Tell it to the Stones or Clapton. Welcome to the New Stupid.

Hear Shokazoba's side of the story in their interview on www.acapulconights.net. They have a 40 minute interview in the top show, followed by a few of their best songs.

My thoughts exactly.

We all know the academic environment is incredibly intolerant of diversity of opinions. Whats news here? Nothing. Academia is probably the least tolerant of any profession to work in. Its still n the dark ages. Thats whats so great about the new technology and distance learning. Its going to destroy the academic endeavor, which is a good thing. Once students can take a class online from any instructor anywhere in the world, students will be able to find more intellectually honest teachers and institutions.

Echos of the "West Side Story" cancellation fiasco in Amherst circa 1999. History repeats itself. Sad.

A truly unfortunate turn of events that appears to have gotten out of hand by the administration. When ever mistakes are made, and particularly one so grievous and public, a forceful apology and 180 degree reversal is due, stat. Apologize to the band, and student body, and bring the band back to campus and show them the respect they should have been given in the first place. That is, if they are willing to return. As Bill's article sums up; this is sad. But not irreparable.

I could hardly believe what i was hearing when someone first told me about this action by Hampshire College. When people behave badly like this they seem to do it with no sense of history or context: censorship is one of the primary tools of political repression. While I don't expect 19-yr old students to necessarily have the big picture of how the world works, I would expect the faculty and administration of the school to be able to guide them down a better path.

Another bull's-eye strike, Bill. Thank you, for clarity of vision and grounded principle, consistently and eloquently expressed in forthright advocacy, even when (especially when) resistance is to be expected. Consider this a deep bow of respect.

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