Are today’s college students thinner-skinned than were previous generations? That may be the sad truth emerging from Tufts and Brandeis Universities, where campus ideologues and their faculty enablers are purging student publications that used parody to comment on religious and race-relations issues. The real danger, of course, is not that today’s students are emotionally frail, but that they are willing to sacrifice freedom of speech and academic freedom to protect themselves from mere offense, never mind intellectual challenges.
On May 10, a Tufts student-faculty judiciary board found the student-editors of conservative student magazine the Primary Source guilty of “harassment” and of “creating a hostile learning environment” by publishing satirical articles that offended some black and Muslim students. Later that same day, the editors of Gravity, a long-running non-partisan campus humor magazine at Brandeis, tendered their resignations after a similar attempt at parody backfired.
For the Primary Source, the nightmare began when it published a mock Christmas carol, in December 2006, titled “O Come All Ye Black Folk.” Written from the viewpoint of a college admissions officer, the carol hymned: “O come all ye black folk, boisterous yet desirable. . . . no matter what your grades are, F’s, D’s, or G’s/Give them privileged status/We will welcome all/O come let us accept them . . .”
Parody is an inherently risky art form, but here the magazine’s intention was reasonably clear: the authors deployed obviously exaggerated racist stereotypes in order to rehash the as-old-as-affirmative-action counterargument to affirmative action — namely, that affirmative action operates on an assumption of black racial inferiority.
“The carol was intended as a satirical criticism of affirmative action and was, in fact, intended as an anti-racist statement,” the editor-in-chief at the time wrote in an apologetic public statement. “It is not the opinion of the Primary Source that there are no qualified black students at Tufts University or that any of the other generalizations in the song are true.”
Never mind the question of whether it is appropriate to pressure, much less require, students to apologize for engaging in parody on a liberal-arts campus devoted to academic freedom. The Primary Source’s mea culpa did not satisfy offended students, who maintained that the magazine’s editors were using the “parody” label to disguise their racist tendencies.
Emotions ran high at a campus rally to denounce the magazine, as well as in a series of published letters that called the Primary Source’s editors “agents of hate” and accused them of “slander.”
Even after the local media began reporting on the controversy, university president Lawrence S. Bacow prudently demurred at campus pressure to punish the Primary Source. And it appeared that the Tufts administration, which has a poor record of protecting free speech, planned to use this particular controversy to demonstrate the importance of combating contested speech with more speech, rather than censorship. Following the Primary Source’s voluntary apology it seemed as if conservative and liberal students might return from winter break and stand together against racism and for free speech.
Alas, David Dennis, a self-described gay black student frustrated with the Primary Source’s continued presence on campus, breathed new life into the saga this past month. Dennis filed harassment charges with the Committee on Student Life (CSL), a judiciary panel composed of faculty and students, arguing that the three-stanza Christmas carol was a “psychological attack” that caused him to “question [his] own intelligence and capability as a student.” (The horror — the horror! — of having to undergo critical self-examination in college!)
Given the Primary Source’s unpopularity among the left-leaning student body, the complaint resonated. The Muslim Student Association, upon hearing of the upcoming trial, filed a matching complaint about an article from the latest issue, which parodied a flyer for Islamic Awareness Week. (Censorship, it seems, is contagious.) The mock flyer contained sinister factoids about fundamentalist Islam — for example, “The seven nations in the world that punish homosexuality with death all have fundamentalist Islamic governments,” and “Most historians agree that Mohammed’s second wife, Aisha, was nine years old when their marriage was consummated.”
The Muslim Student Association’s reaction is particularly disturbing from an academic-freedom point of view, since the parody contained a list of assertedly factual statements regarding radical Islam. As such, it clearly qualifies as political speech — the category of speech on which the Constitution confers the highest level of protection. It’s troubling, then, that these students reflexively pushed for formal sanctions against their political adversaries, since it raises grave doubts about the next generation of students’ ability to engage in debate without resorting to appeals to censorial authority.
Outsiders following the Tufts fiasco understood that the offended students would not have had a case had these same events unfolded at a public university bound by the First Amendment. After all, the Supreme Court, in its famous 1988 Hustler v. Falwell decision, ruled unanimously that a vile parody, in which the recently deceased Reverend Jerry Falwell described drunkenly losing his virginity to his mother in an outhouse, constituted protected political speech. Similarly, every competent judge knows that the charges against the Primary Source — specifically, that it stereotyped blacks and Muslims — falls far short of the legal threshold of “harassment.”