Civil Liberties

Ad Anger

Free expression is under attack in another campus ad controversy.


Not long ago, the campaign by conservative firebrand David Horowitz to run ads in college newspapers criticizing reparations for slavery renewed the debate about political correctness in the academy. Now, there's a controversy about another campus newspaper ad dealing with an emotionally charged issue: feminism and the victimization of women.

Less than two weeks ago, about three dozen UCLA students held a rally protesting the publication of an advertisement titled "Take Back the Campus" in the student newspaper, The Daily Bruin. Placed by the Independent Women's Forum, which specializes in tweaking feminist orthodoxies, the ad listed "Ten Most Common Feminist Myths"—among them the claims that one in four college women become victims of rape or attempted rape, that women are paid 75 cents for every dollar earned by men, and that 30 percent of women's visits to emergency rooms are due to battering.

To some at UCLA, this is "hateful misinformation," so "antiwoman" and "violent" that it never should have seen the light of day. The protesters, led by the Clothesline Project (an organization that promotes awareness of violence against women) and the Coalition for the Fair Representation of Women, demand that the Bruin issue an apology and a retraction, just as the Daily Californian at Berkeley did last March after running the Horowitz ad.

The feminist groups are also miffed because the Bruin wouldn't give them free space to respond—even though, as campus organizations, they could have bought an ad about 30 percent cheaper than the Independent Women's Forum paid. Apparently, fighting for a righteous cause means never having to pay for ad space. More important than the apology, Clothesline Project executive co-chair Christie Scott told the Bruin, "We want this not to happen again."

The activists are dismayed by the Independent Women's Forum plan to launch a larger ad campaign in the fall and, in the words of one protester, "to infiltrate campuses with their lies and myths."

In fact, most of the ad is factually impeccable. It cites data, mostly from government reports or from leading research journals, showing that girls are not shortchanged in schools; gender disparities in earnings are largely explained by differences in training, occupation, and experience; and injuries from domestic violence account for no more than 1 percent of women's emergency room visits. (Full disclosure: its citations include a paper I co-wrote.)

Some of the most heated controversy has to do with rape statistics. To counter the one-in-four figure, the Independent Women's Forum ad cites government figures on reported rapes; obviously, not all rapes are reported. However, a Justice Department study released in December, "The Sexual Victimization of College Women," found that over the course of nearly a full academic year, fewer than 3 percent of women students had experienced what the researchers (but, in more than half of those cases, not the women) classified as rape or attempted rape.

There is plenty of debate among scholars and researchers on the true prevalence of sexual violence. Unfortunately, in rape awareness workshops on campuses, such debate is often eschewed in favor of rigid dogma—which the Independent Women's Forum has done well to shake up.

In another stunning demonstration of the low esteem in which intellectual openness is held by some students today, the UCLA protesters argued that the ad should have been nixed because it promotes gender stereotypes—by having the temerity to discuss scientific evidence of biologically based differences between men and women. Personally, I happen to think the Independent Women's Forum tends to be a little too gung-ho about claims of sex difference, but should this really be a taboo topic?

Esteem for freedom of expression seems to be in equally short supply. Scott derides the "free-speech argument" for running the ad as somewhat cowardly; a letter-writer to the Bruin accuses the Independent Women's Forum of hiding behind the banner of free speech. When the phrase "free speech" starts popping up in such dismissive contexts, that's cause for concern.

The response of other student publications could be an important test. According to the IWF's Kate Kennedy, editors at the Harvard Crimson tried to remove a line which said that bogus domestic violence statistics are promoted by gender feminists whose primary goal seems to be to impugn men; by the time the negotiations were over, the IWF felt it was too late in the semester to run the ad. Meanwhile, the Columbia Daily Spectator rejected it "outright."

The UCLA protesters insist on regarding women as a gender in peril and bristle when anyone suggests otherwise. As a result, what may be truly imperiled is the free exchange of ideas.