Free expression at NC State, RIP

Note: This article has been updated. See the update at the conclusion of this post.

As an alumnus of NC State, I was upset but not surprised when some idiots1 wrote hateful, racially offensive graffiti concerning Barack Obama in the Free Expression Tunnel — upset because of the content, not surprised because of the location (the Free Expression Tunnel has been a reliable source of material offensive to anyone from any walk of life ever since it came to be).

I was mortified when the leadership of NC State decided to publicize this idiocy in a press release and then compounded it by vowing to prosecute the students responsible, who were after all writing under the correct belief that their bilge constituted free expression — mortified because there was no need for the university to embarrass itself, because students and leaders have known for decades that a little bit of paint takes care of anything so offensive you don’t wish to see it again (there is no guarantee that anything painted in the Free Expression Tunnel will last the night, let alone several days), and most of all because it signaled the university’s complete aversion to free expression and by extension the First Amendment.

I maintain that NC State has missed a crucial chance to use this controversy as a “teachable moment” for the First Amendment and the critical nature of free speech in a free society. You fight offensive speech with more speech, not by repression and usurping the God-given, self-evident right of free speech. So you paint over it, you protest, you hold rallies, you attempt to shame the offensive speakers into mending their ways, write op-eds, whatever — but you don’t try to repress them or use the power of government to punish them.

I was not surprised at all when the NAACP tried to make a cause out of this. They have to do what they have to do, and out of sheer survival instinct they will be ever more desperate to make this state and nation resemble the antebellum South in attitudes. That doesn’t mean the university has to kowtow to their illiberal demands nor go along with the pretense that a graffito is all a part of slavery, lynching, Jim Crow laws, and — well, decidedly not the same words used repeatedly in popular music and in popular culture, because that’s OK and, it being so commonplace in the culture students are exposed to every day and all day, certainly doesn’t even come close to the impact of a scribble in a university graffiti wall one day.

But I confess I am disheartened that the students are going along with the idea that the students need to be expelled. I find this attitude frightening (note: see update below):

A bill in the school’s Student Senate urges the university to immediately expel those who promote violent and racist actions on campus and to prosecute the offending students to the fullest extent of state and federal law.

The Student Senate plans to meet at 7:30 p.m. to vote on the issue. Although several amendments may be suggested, including dropping the demand to expel the students, the bill is expected to pass.

It’s not enough for them to register their profound disagreement with the sentiments expressed (a disagreement I share entirely — I have no interest, none, in defending odious ideas, but I have every interest in defending the inalienable right to free speech regardless of its content). They want government repression against speech, and they don’t seem to realize the tyrannical repercussions of that desire. And that’s obviously because their teachers and professors haven’t taught them. They sought to raise a generation ideologically disposed to tyrannizing speech, and maybe they have succeeded.

Update: The WRAL report has changed with respect to the student bill. The new text reads:

A bill in the school’s Student Senate urges the university to punish the students who painted it to the fullest extent that school policies allow. The Student Senate plans to meet at 7:30 p.m. to vote on the issue.

The bill to be considered Wednesday night was amended from its original form. In the draft presented last week, expulsion was included in the suggested punishments. That language has been removed from the final version. Instead, the bill would require that offenders undergo diversity education and that the university revisit rules on student conduct to specifically address actions or words that “incite violence or otherwise create a hostile campus environment toward individuals or University protected groups.”

So it’s not expulsion. It’s still an incredibly chilling, illiberal overreaction to free — however noxious — expression.

1. Do we even know the race(s) of the students who wrote the graffiti? Everyone is assuming that it was written by hate-filled white racists. But this is a university — it could have been written by students just trying to provoke a reaction for fun, or by students trying to provoke these exact reactions to serve their politics. The last two “racist” incidents at NC State include a hoax (the supposed KKK meeting) and likely a prank (the “unsolved” toilet-paper noose incident). And there have been plenty of hate-crime hoaxes on university campuses, precisely because the universities’ reactions have been so uniform as to be predictable.

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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