Attention NC State: The phrase “Free Expression” has a very clear meaning

What is so hard to understand? This occurrence should, to a responsible administration, represent a “teachable moment” about free speech and the need to counter offensive speech with more speech, not repression — a welcome lesson to the generation so mollycoddled it cannot handle even the idea of offense.

But not at NC State, not even at its famous “Free Expression Tunnel,” where certain expression isn’t free after all. I excerpt from the News & Observer story on the matter and highlight relevant portions:

Students and staff members at N.C. State University found racist graffiti spray-painted throughout the campus’ Free Expression Tunnel on Wednesday, apparently a reaction to President-elect Barack Obama’s victory.

By 10 a.m., the tunnel had been painted white from end to end, and student groups hung signs to promote unity and condemn hate speech.

Chancellor James Oblinger said any presidential election is bound to bring out strong emotions.

“However,” he wrote in a statement posted on the NCSU Web site, “the strength and positive force of spirited debate is sapped when we resort to name-calling and negativity. Worse, when we lower ourselves to engaging in racist characterizations and inappropriate statements of anger and hate, we make a mockery of our right to free speech.”

NCSU spokesman Keith Nichols said that Obama was named, and that about a month ago, a “cryptic” message about a Klan meeting had been chalked on the campus Brickyard.

The Free Expression Tunnel dates to the 1960s and is open to anyone with an idea and a can of paint — NCSU’s concession to graffiti artists. …

Oblinger’s statement said the graffiti was discovered early Wednesday morning. Nichols said officials assume it happened overnight after Tuesday’s election. Campus police are investigating, he said, and there are cameras in the tunnel area.

The students who hung the signs and condemned the speech, they are acting responsibly (insofar as they are not seeking campus prosecution for the person who wrote the things they’re protesting).

But make no mistake: The campus officials are the ones making a mockery of free speech by siccing campus police and cameras on people engaged in it. If it’s free, it’s free — no questions asked, no jackboots dispatched. Did someone write something offensive in the Free Expression Tunnel? Yes, and that happens on every day of the week that ends in y.

Such an Orwelllian overreaction has occurred before, and as I wrote then:

It seems necessary at this time to reiterate that the source of the offensive graffiti is called the “Free Expression Tunnel” — a cherished N.C. State tradition. Be it politics, art, advertising, whatever — N.C. State students know the drill: get yourself some paint and go to the tunnel. There are no guarantees touching the longevity of one’s work. There are certainly no guarantees regarding its sanctity. Other students have the right to paint whatever they want wherever in the tunnel they want, and that’s part of the assumed risk. As a student told The News & Observer, “Any time you write something on a wall, you better be prepared to have someone write over it.”

The Free Expression Tunnel provides a unique model of what free speech looks like. The expressions therein range from the thoughtful to the inane, and there’s such a glut of them that it’s just as easy to get lost trying to read them all as it is to ignore them altogether. A student who isn’t offended by something in the tunnel is taking the latter tack.

By the way — about that “cryptic” scrawl of a Klan meeting: it was an obvious hoax, as NC State’s student newspaper, Technician, reported the day after reporting on the scrawl (under the headline “KKK meeting a hoax, brings free speech debate to N.C. State“).

NC State’s other recent “white racist” hullabaloo (a toilet-paper noose! run!) also bears the hallmarks of a hoax or prank. The university’s overreaction to that has surely let campus pranksters know that a little affectation of white racism will create a memorable display of sheer hysteria. But even if the graffiti were actual racism on display, its appearance in the Free Expression Tunnel should suffice to keep campus police away. To paraphrase the Brickyard preacher: Repaint, you whiners.

Jon Sanders / Director of Regulatory Studies

Jon Sanders studies regulatory policy, a veritable kudzu of invasive government and unintended consequences. As director of regulatory studies at the John Locke Foundation, Jo...

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