A university is a haven for free inquiry where ideas—including unpopular or controversial ones—can be discussed freely and peacefully, where the pursuit of knowledge is the highest value. That's what I expected, anyway, when I enrolled as a journalism student at California State University, Northridge. I am sad to report that the pursuit of knowledge often takes a back seat to the political agenda of school officials. At CSUN and many other colleges, the marketplace of ideas is heavily regulated in order to promote "sensitivity" to minority groups.
I wrote an opinion column for the Daily Sundial—the school newspaper of which I am news editor—telling the story of Ron Bell, editor-in-chief of the UCLA Daily Bruin. Bell had been threatened by a group of eight students angry over a cartoon he printed. The cartoon, one of a regular (and previously apolitical) comic strip, depicted a rooster explaining to another student that he had been admitted to UCLA because of affirmative action.
The board that oversees UCLA's student publications suspended Bell as editor-in-chief for one week for printing a "racially insensitive" cartoon and violating a rule prohibiting "articles that perpetuate derogatory ethnic stereotypes." The suspension was rescinded when Bell agreed to run an apology and to send his reporters to cultural awareness workshops.
Among those who had pressed for action against Bell was Lisa Smith, who edits Nommo, UCLA's black student magazine—the editorial staff of which was represented in the gang that stormed Bell's office. In a Nommo editorial, Smith made it clear that her objection to the cartoon was the political view it expressed: "At a time when affirmative action is under attack across the country the cartoon…further undermines the efforts to preserve a much needed program."
Along with my editorial, I reprinted both the cartoon and excerpts from a viciously racist Nommo article. Sample: "Their [whites'] abstract theories and philosophy concerning government and economics has [sic] an underlying tone of selfishness, possessiveness, and greediness because their character is made up of these things. They cannot see the merit in collectivism and socialism because they do not possess the qualities of rational thought, generosity and magnanimity necessary to be part of a social order or system."
Nommo is supervised by the same board that oversees the Bruin and is presumably subject to the same rule against stereotypes. But no action has been taken against it, because nobody has complained. I concluded that promoting "sensitivity" is less a matter of setting objective standards than of pandering to the hysterics of a small, highly politicized group of minority students.
Noting that such incidents are not confined to UCLA, I wrote, "The battle between 'sensitivity' and free expression is being waged on college campuses throughout the country. Little did I know I was to become its next casualty.
The Sundial, you see, has a little-known (but, I am told, long-standing) policy requiring "questionable" material to be submitted to the faculty publisher for prior review. The publisher, journalism professor Cynthia Rawitch, declared the cartoon "questionable" and suspended me from the paper for two weeks for not consulting her before reprinting it. The Sundial has printed plenty of questionable material in the four years Rawitch has been publisher, and she hasn't always had the opportunity to censor it before publication. But no editor has ever been suspended for violating this rule. Why was I so severely punished?
Probably because my article touched an ideological nerve, by rejecting the notion that sensitivity to minorities should take precedence over freedom of expression, that minority members, as compensation for past injustices, should be given veto power over the expression of ideas with which they disagree. In critiquing my article, Rawitch argued that the cartoon, although it didn't mention any specific ethnic or cultural group, was a violation of the UCLA rule because affirmative action applies only to minorities and women. The Nommo article didn't violate the rule, she said, because whites—referred to in that article as Europeans—are not an ethnic or cultural group.
Obviously such an ideology cannot stand up under rational scrutiny. Its adherents know this, and they do whatever possible to evade such scrutiny, starting with the old argument ad hominem. They label their critics "racist," "sexist," "homophobic," or "insensitive," indiscriminately using such words as terms of vilification.
If character assassination fails, the next step is censorship. It takes various forms and is always justified in terms of some reasonable-sounding rule. (Perhaps the most outrageous example is at Yale, where students who publicly disapprove of homosexuality risk being disciplined on "sexual harassment" charges). But the real purpose is to stamp out thought that deviates from the ideology of sensitivity.
This sort of action on the part of university officials is a disservice to all students, for it teaches them that intimidation is more powerful than reason and that ideas approved by those in authority should be imposed by force, rather than considered on their own merits. Universities that reject the democratic ideas of free thought and expression cannot help but become breeding grounds for totalitarianism.
James Taranto is a college student and free-lance writer.