Civil Liberties

Klansman vs. Tillman

Double standard on free speech?


Last april, the student paper at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, The Daily Collegian, ran a column by graduate student Rene Gonzalez attacking Pat Tillman, the Arizona Cardinals safety who had volunteered for the US Army and was killed in Afghanistan. Gonzalez called Tillman an "idiot" who was "acting out his macho, patriotic crap" and got what he deserved. An outcry ensued, on and off campus. The Collegian printed a statement defending Gonzalez's free speech rights while distancing itself from his views; university president Jack M. Wilson publicly deplored the column but affirmed the writer's right to free speech.

In my commentary on the brouhaha, I wondered if the people who stood up for free expression in this case would have been as generous toward, say, racist, sexist, or antigay expression. Now, we have an answer. In recent weeks, UMass has been up in arms about an alleged racist incident involving a humorous drawing of a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

The incident happened last March after the elections for the UMass Student Government Association, at a post-election party attended by nine association members. One of them, Patrick Higgins, had been labeled a "racist" during his unsuccessful run for SGA president because he opposed a proposal to reserve a quota of seats in the student Senate for members of ALANA, a group purporting to represent "African, Latino, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Native American" students. At the party, someone drew a caricature on a dry-erase board depicting Higgins as a "grand wizard" in a pointed hat and with a burning cross in his hand, with a speech bubble that said, "I love ALANA!"

Photos from the party were posted on a student's website; last month, someone tipped off the campus community to their existence. There were forums and meetings to deplore an alleged climate of racism on the UMass campus. The university launched disciplinary proceedings against the students for "harassment." While the charges also involved underage consumption of alcohol, that was clearly a tangential issue.

Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Michael Gargano told The Daily Collegian that he was considering a variety of sanctions against the offenders—dubbed "the KKK9″—including removal from their posts in student government or 500 hours of community service. Still others demanded the students' immediate expulsion from UMass.

In an e-mail communication last week, Gargano told me that the case was closed, having been "resolved within the parameters of the university Code of Student Conduct." Citing student privacy, the university will not comment on the specific penalties issued to any of the students.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonpartisan group that defends civil liberties on college campuses, regards the university's response as an appalling disregard for free speech. The foundation points out that the drawing of the "grand wizard" with his eyes crossed and his tongue hanging out could hardly be construed as an expression of sympathy for the Klan; rather, it was intended to spoof, perhaps in a not very sensitive or tasteful manner, the specious charges of racism made earlier against Higgins. (In the campus hysteria, the drawing was consistently mischaracterized, with its context and its satirical nature left out.)

In its statement, the foundation contrasted the persecution of the students in this case to the university's refusal to take sanctions against Gonzalez. However, to be fair, Gonzalez did not exactly get off scot-free. After his screed against Pat Tillman got national exposure and became fodder for conservative websites and talk shows, he began to receive anonymous death threats. He tried to get the Collegian to remove his column from its website, and finally decided to leave the campus. New York Press columnist Matt Taibbi accused Wilson of colluding in this "pogrom" by denouncing Gonzalez's column even while defending his "right to be wrong."

There is today, in some quarters of our culture, a real and troubling intolerance toward speech that offends patriotic sentiment. Sometimes, it can turn into intimidation that punishes dissent. But at least it does not operate under the cover of official authority by university administrators wearing the mantle of liberal values. One may argue about whether Wilson's defense of free speech in the Gonzalez case was strong enough. However, says Greg Lukianoff, director of legal and public advocacy for the foundation, "By at least defending the right of Rene Gonzalez UMass demonstrated that it understood the essentiality of free speech, especially on campus. By trying to punish Patrick Higgins and the other students in this case, however, UMass has shown that it will employ an unconscionable double standard." Indeed.