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



Last modified: Sunday, November 03, 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, Students For America and the Young Republican Club, called. The university was preventing them from bringing the country’s leading gay-basher, the defrocked psychologist Paul Cameron, to speak on campus during Gay Pride Week. They wanted to know, would the ACLU defend their First Amendment right to bring Cameron to campus?

The conversation made me sick to my stomach. I couldn’t dial Silverglate fast enough. “Where the (blank) are the angels?” I demanded.

The university’s justification for banning Cameron? The student groups didn’t have the funds to pay the cost of the needed security. UMass had trotted out this canard once before — a decade earlier — when administrators attempted to prohibit Black Panther Angela Davis from speaking.

The university ultimately relented and let Davis speak. Similarly, in 1988, UMass abandoned the pretext for banning Cameron and declined the invitation I extended on behalf of the ACLU of Massachusetts to litigate the issue of whether recognized student organizations at UMass, which supposedly is a public institution of higher education devoted to free inquiry and expression, have the right to present a speaker of their choice — regardless of how unpopular, controversial, or reviled.

When Cameron came the next week, he was greeted with the largest — at that time — gay-rights demonstration ever held in western Massachusetts, editorials condemning him and his views, teach-ins and LGBT support services — all of which helped galvanize the LGBT community.

Consider the paradigm. The way to expose and root out bad, bigoted and hateful speech is not censorship, but better and more righteous speech. In Cameron’s case the paradigm worked well. It almost always does.

Last week, Hampshire College, in censoring an afro-funk band, abdicated its responsibility to engage the community in a teachable moment and instead succumbed to the allure and convenience of censorship. In doing so, it violated American Association of University Professors’ guidelines and its own commitment to academic freedom.

Groups that seek to censor others forget that tomorrow it could be their speech, their ideas and their ideology that will be banned.

— Bill Newman




 


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