Patrick isn't very popular with police associations (remember those civilian flaggers?), and with a likely contentious re-election campaign only a year away, his outreach effort smacks of political opportunism. What else would cause this Harvard Law–educated governor to advocate unlawful censorship? He did, after all, take an oath to uphold the state constitution.
As for school administrators? Despite a long list of Supreme Court opinions supporting their right to host controversial speakers, these risk-averse university bureaucrats initially capitulated to the demands of law-enforcement unions and other outside groups. And when the faculty group decided to re-invite Levasseur, UMass President Jack Wilson released an astoundingly apologetic pseudo-defense of freedom: "[W]e see no way of preventing a speaking appearance, based on the free-speech and free-assembly rights we enjoy in this country," according to a November 10 statement. In other words: our hands are tied — let freedom ring!
Even UMass faculty is not without blame. In this instance, some correctly identified the threat posed to academic inquiry when the pressured library group initially rescinded the invitation. But faculty outrage on this campus has been notably absent during other instances of viewpoint censorship, especially from the political "right."
Earlier this year, for example, former Boston Herald columnist Don Feder was invited to speak by the UMass Amherst Republican Club. Anticipating protests, UMass officials charged event organizers an extra $444.52 for security. (Heckling students still forced the speaker to cut short his lecture, alas.) The school's blatant content-based distinction in licensing Feder's speech raised no discernible faculty ire. It was not until a Boston Globe op-ed, written by the vice-president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) — a nonprofit and nonpartisan group that defends academic freedom — publicized the clear First Amendment violation that UMass officials refunded the increased fee. (Disclosure: the co-authors of this piece have connections to FIRE: Silverglate is its co-founder and current Board chairman, and Smeallie is a program associate.)
Consider, too, an incident from the 2004 student-government presidential election. One candidate, Patrick Higgins, opposed a program for a certain number of student-legislature seats to be reserved for minorities. For this, his opponents labeled him a racist.
At an election party, Higgins's supporters drew a caricature of him resembling a Ku Klux Klan member with an asinine facial expression — an obvious parody of the racism accusations.
Months later, a student discovered photographs, some of which included the caricature, on Higgins's personal Web page and brought them to the attention of administrators. Higgins was charged with racial "harassment" and pressured into resigning from his position in the student government. Again, faculty resistance to the punishment over these parodic pictures was virtually nonexistent.
For freedom of speech to function, its supporters must be willing to apply it equally, especially to speech with which they disagree. Though the Levasseur incident saw faculty asserting its academic freedom rights — as the UMass administration kowtowed to outside pressure — it also exposed the professoriate as one-sided. Defending only controversial speech on one half of the political divide is a formula for hollowing out this time-tested constitutional guarantee and academic axiom.