January 31, 2004
How to handle a bake sale
Affirmative action bake sales have become the pet political protest of conservative and libertarian campus groups over the past year. They have also become the pet target of administrators seeking to cleanse their campuses of any expression that offends officially protected demographic groups. Two of the more egregious instances of such misguided censorship have taken place at the University of Washington and at the College of William & Mary.
At UW, the sale was shut down after offended students attacked the sale display and the students running the sale (the attackers were not themselves punished); later, the UW Board of Trustees published a thoroughly out-of-line letter denouncing the UW College Republicans for being hurtful, and effectively dictating to the UW student body what its politics ought to be and what kinds of constitutionally protected expression are not welcome on the Washington campus.
At William & Mary, the Sons of Liberty were threatened with disciplinary action if they did not shut down their sale--despite the fact that no administrator seemed able to cite a policy the group had violated. When concerned members of the public wrote to W&M President Timothy Sullivan to express their dismay at the school's censorious and repressive ways, Sullivan replied by mocking and belittling them.
This week, two more bake sale-related events have been held on college campuses.
The first took place on Tuesday at William & Mary as the Sons of Liberty staged a reprise of their earlier, censored sale. Though W&M administrators have not admitted wrongdoing in shutting down the first sale, the fact that this one did go ahead without incident suggests that they now recognize, however grudgingly, the error of their former ways. But knowing that they were wrong does not mean they grasp why they were wrong, nor does it mean they are any better equipped to handle a student protest they find hateful.
So it was that Sullivan issued a press release on the day of the sale castigating the Sons of Liberty for both their politics and their method of expressing those politics (John Rosenberg takes Sullivan's statement apart here). Sullivan notes in the release that if the Sons of Liberty have free speech rights, so does he; he then uses this truism as an excuse to abuse his position as president of the school. It is not for the president of a college committed to the free exchange of ideas to decide which ideas are and are not acceptable on his campus; it is not for the president of such a school to chill debate and hamper students' exploration of ideas by throwing his own ideological weight around.
Sullivan may believe he is coming down on the side of righteousness when he condemns the Sons of Liberty for staging a political protest that some members of the campus community find offensive. But in fact what he is doing is betraying both his position and the founding principles of the school by asserting that there is only one right way (his way) for the members of the W&M community to think about affirmative action, and by trying to bully them into compliance through public shaming.
Sullivan might benefit from studying the bake sale that was held at Utah State last month. There, the sale proceeded peacefully--no one challenged the rights of the students running it to express their views. There, those who disagreed with the premises of the sale did not respond with violence or with censorship, but with debate. This week, the university hosted a heated follow-up debate that was attended by over 600 students and faculty. All sides of the issue were aired, no one was silenced, and controversy ran a dignified, intellectually substantive course.
Shame on Timothy Sullivan. Kudos to all at Utah State.
Thanks to Maurice Black for the Utah State link.