Magazine article Free Inquiry

Does the First Amendment Protect Theft and Arson?

Magazine article Free Inquiry

Does the First Amendment Protect Theft and Arson?

Article excerpt

Around the country, thousands of college student newspapers have been stolen and burned or otherwise destroyed in recent years. Almost invariably, these inflamed press critics have been liberal students enraged at an article in a conservative newspaper.

This terminal press criticism has happened at Cornell University and I covered the story for the Washington Post and the Village Voice. Also, in October, I spoke at Cornell about these assaults on the First Amendment right to disseminate information, and the corollary right of readers to see that information.

The first article in the conservative Cornell Review to bring out the vigilantes was a parody of ebonies, a form of black language. The second was a pro-life cartoon strip by a syndicated cartoonist, Chuck Asay.

Faculty members might have advised picketing or boycotting the Cornell Review, or publishing attacks on those articles. Instead, both faculty and administrators did not point out these alternatives, nor were any sanctions taken against the stealing and burning of the Cornell Review. Yet, Cornell's Code of Conduct states clearly: "the right to free expression requires respect for the rights of others."

At one of the bonfires of the Cornell Review, the dean of students was seen standing alongside students burning the offending newspapers. He was not protesting the action. He later told me, as did a series of administrators, that this way of rebutting unpopular ideas was simply a form of protected expression, as was stealing the papers.

The First Amendment does apply, or should, at Cornell. Though largely a private university, a number of its divisions are supported by federal funds. Yet college officials brushed aside my bringing forth the First Amendment.

When I spoke at the university, a professor took me aside at a faculty lunch and said softly, "I'm glad you're saying these things, because I can't. …

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