Facing up

Letters to the Boston editor, March 9, 2007
By BOSTON PHOENIX LETTERS  |  March 7, 2007

Facing off over Facebook” contained some very valuable information about university administrators’ increased role in monitoring students’ online activities. However, the second half of the article appeared to be a diatribe against codes of speech that schools have developed to protect members of historically oppressed groups. The authors write, “As pleasant as politeness may be, it is of minuscule importance compared with the necessity of robust discussion on our college campuses.” Regardless whether these codes are necessary, reasonable, or productive, I am not convinced that Justin Park’s racist party contributes anything to robust discussion, and I am disappointed that the writers have attempted to twist the importance of free speech into a cover for lingering classism and racism at our nation’s colleges.

James deBoer
Providence, RI

How has it come to pass that civil-rights groups like the NAACP — which once relied on free-speech principles to advance their social- and racial-equality goals — now seek to censor and punish the speech of others with whom they disagree? The censors say that Justin Park, a Korean-American student, may not poke fun at hip-hop culture by inviting his friends to a party that mocks or reflects the hip-hop community. Indeed, they support his suspension from college for the offense! But what if Justin Park had been an African-American student who sent the same invitation to come to a bling-bling party and to dress accordingly? Would the NAACP have advocated disciplinary action against the African-American student? Or, what if the same African-American student wanted to mock some aspect of “white culture” and used rural or broken-Italian dialect to do so? Would the NAACP chapter have demanded his punishment by college officials? Even if the invitation was to an off-campus or non-college-sponsored party? I don’t think so. This means either some students are to be silenced and punished because they do not have the requisite skin color or ethnicity to poke fun at others or themselves — including, perhaps, using the N-word — or else it cedes to university officials’ extraordinary discretion to arbitrarily and capriciously regulate and determine what students may and may not say, whether with tongue-in-cheek or in all sincerity.

Such wanton discretion not only gives the censor unbridled power but it threatens the freedom of minority voices in particular. Imagine the kind of sanitized campus environment it would be where such firebrand speakers as Huey P. Newton, H. Rapp Brown, Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Flo Kennedy, or Louis Farrakhan had to toe the line of acceptable and approved speech that does not offend! We never would have been allowed in the 1960s and ’70s to tout, much less shout out, “Look out whitey, black power’s gonna git your mamma.” Everything about that once fashionable and militant cry is, judged by today’s censorious standards and campus sensibilities, offensive.

The response of the free thinker is to counter “bad” speech with truth, and, in the university setting truth is not pursued or attained through censorship. That is the message of Greg Lukianoff and Will Creeley’s insightful and brilliant essay, a message that the members and allies of the NAACP chapter as well as other “non-racists” had better learn fast before their own free speech is squelched.

Michael Meyers
New York, NY

The writer is executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition and a former assistant national director of the NAACP.

Correction:
There was a mix-up of the production credits in Steve Vineberg’s theater review last week. Rae Smith did the sets and costumes and Scott Zielinski the lighting for the American Repertory Theatre production of Oliver Twist. Janie E. Howland did the set, Milly Trainer the costumes, and Jeff Adelberg the lighting for the New Repertory Theatre production of Orson’s Shadow. Our apologies to all concerned.

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  Topics: Letters , Entertainment, Internet, Scott Zielinski,  More more >
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