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Time to take a break from the terrorism wars and turn to the latest round of political correctness wars raging on many of the nation’s college campuses.  Given their seeming prevalence, it was instructive to be reminded recently that (a) I used to be a college student and (b) I was involved in some of these skirmishes back in the day myself.

The specific incident took place in November, 1974, and concerned a speaking invitation that the debating society at Princeton University extended to Chile’s ambassador to the United States. To save everyone the need to Google this, the decision was controversial because Chile’s democratically elected socialist government had just been overthrown the year before in a military coup, and the ambassador was a general who represented the junta responsible and its repressive rule.

It would be an exaggeration to say that the campus was convulsed in debate over how – or if – to respond to the planned event. (The counterculture and any major political residue of the 1960s was long gone by then from Princeton.) But the invitation certainly triggered an unusual amount of discussion and even actions by individual students and by various campus groups, including the student government.

For example, the latter voted to condemn the junta, but turned down a motion to urge students to boycott the speech. The campus Socialist Study Group (trust me – it was small), denounced the invitation itself, and also sponsored a “militant boycott.” This consisted of a protest outside the venue whose participants sought to convince others not to attend.  (This account comes from articles in the digital archives of the student newspaper, The Daily Princetonian.)

What I find especially interesting – and pertinent for today’s free speech controversies – is that I can’t find any record, and don’t personally recall, any organization or individual at the university that urged that the invitation be withdrawn, or that the speech be disrupted. In fact, the Socialist Study Group explicitly decided to oppose any attempt to interfere with the event. And I found genuinely eloquent and moving one activist’s rationale for the planned demonstration: “We want it to be impossible for someone to get inside without having to ask himself ‘why am I going inside?'”  

Of course, The Princetonian needed to weigh in, and as one of the editorial page editors, I drafted our perspective. In retrospect, the main point made seems sensible – and struck the necessary balance between tolerance and conscience. The editorial blasted Heitmann as “nothing more than a thug in formal clothing” but insisted that “The wisdom of Whig-Clio’s [the debating society] decision to invite him is both debatable and immaterial.” It continued:

What is important is that when [Ambassador Walter] Heitmann appears, the community should expose him to the full force of its outrage and indignation. Accordingly, we strongly urge all members of the university to protest vigorously Heitmann’s presence and’the murderous nature of what he represents. At the same time, the community should remember that to disrupt the ambassador’s speech is to resort to his own gutter tactics.”

And then came the part that, in my mind, was crucial. The edit spotlighted and praised the debating society’s president for announcing that the ambassador had agreed to take questions after his speech. That, apparently, had not been a foregone conclusion. According to the editorial, this decision mattered because:

it adheres to the spirit as well as the letter of free speech, a notion which entails much more than undisturbed presentation. At its crux lie ideas of discussion and exchange, which are by no means served by giving Heitmann a soapbox and then permitting him to make a neat, quick exit.”  

The upshot: Heitmann gave his speech. A crowd estimated at 275 protested outside. Their chants could be heard through the windows of the venue that remained open, but evidently were not loud enough to interfere with the proceedings. Inside, two students who were standing with their backs to the podium moved to the rear of the room when, according to the Princetonian, they were “told that they were blocking the view of the audience….” But no one was hurt or arrested.  And by all accounts, Heitmann was challenged vigorously.

But although preventing “neat, quick exits” and insisting on opportunities for genuine exchange still seems to be a good policy for handling speakers with arguably offensive messages, it doesn’t address another major aspect of today’s campus speech controversies: what seem to be increasingly common instances of what deserves to be called – at least unofficially – hate speech.

I imagine that it’s difficult for my baby boom peers to get a grip on this problem, because racial and homophobic and similar epithets were practically unheard of in public, on campus of off, whether in the form of slogans scrawled on walls or insults shouted at individuals or groups.

The First Amendment enthusiast in me bridles at the thought of official responses, especially when it comes to remarks made in the heat of the moment. But the rest of me believes that everyone has a right to go about their daily routines, especially in a place of learning, without being assaulted audibly or visually by words whose only purpose can be to denigrate and harm and in fact to dehumanize, but that fail to threaten physical violence (a plausible threshold in my view for legal action, along with findings of vandalism).

Any thoughts from you RealityChek readers on handling this dilemma would be most welcome. But until I figure this out, I’m left with the hitherto unimaginable thought that, at least compared with the present, my time as a student, in the ’60s and ’70s, was generally a garden party.