Freedom that destroys liberty

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RESPECT for freedom of expression can lead to intimidation, which in turn leads to denial of freedom of expression for a targeted individual or group. The phenomenon is transcultural and as old as Socrates. A recent manifestation of it is leading to rather painful debate on American campuses and in the upmarket media, especially the New York Times.

The relevant incidents occurred last month at Howard University, the oldest and most respected of the American black universities, situated in a black ghetto area of Washington DC. There were two incidents. One was a rally on Howard campus addressed by Khalid Abdul Muhammad of the Nation of Islam, formerly a top aide to Louis Farrakhan. The other incident was the 'postponement' of a lecture to have been given on the same campus by David Brion Davis, Sterling Professor of History at Yale.

Khalid Abdul Muhammad, like his mentor, is a purveyor of hatred: of whites in general and of Jews in particular (of Catholics also, but in a more abstract way). Professor Davis is a recent convert to Judaism. According to a New York Times report Professor Davis's lecture 'was postponed because of fears that he might be heckled'.

The university administration defended the Muhammad rally on First Amendment grounds: to refuse permission for it to be held would be to curb freedom of expression, which is inherently wrong. It could not be contended that the Davis lecture was postponed because of the Muhammad rally, since the postponement preceded the rally. But critics (of whom I am one) of the administration's stand on freedom of expression, contend that its permissive attitude to hate-propaganda has provided student-bullies and their outside allies with a licence to intimidate.

It is clear that student-bullies at Howard are in a very small minority; but their outside allies are formidable. While only a handful of those who attended the Mohammed rally are believed to have been students, his audience - or rather fellow participants - consisted of more than 1,500 people, who are reported as cheering him 'as he led attacks against whites and Jews as enemies of Islam and oppressors of American blacks'. A clearer example of intimidation under cover of freedom of expression would be hard to imagine.

'Intimidation of whom?' it may be asked. There were hardly many whites or Jews within earshot of that rally. No indeed: those who were within earshot of the rally were students and faculty members of Howard university, almost all of whom are black. It is clear that very few students approved of the rally. No doubt many were indifferent or cynical. But some surely detested that rally and what it stood for, and these would include the most serious students. It was they - the best black students, the best hope for the future of their community - who were being subjected to intimidation as a result of their administration's professed devotion to freedom of expression.

There are clear signs that the university authorities have learnt a lesson from the Muhammad/Davis episode. The president of Howard's board of trustees, Wayman F Smith III, has announced that the board will strengthen measures to prevent the university being exploited by advocates of racism, anti-Semitism or any other hateful position that is contrary to the history, scholarship and mission of Howard.

That statement appears to close the period during which freedom of expression has been treated as an absolute on that particular campus. And in view of the historic primacy of Howard in the intellectual history of the black community, historians may rate last month's events at Howard as constituting a benign turning point in the intellectual and cultural history of the United States.

There are some general lessons to be drawn: first as regards academic freedom in general, then as regards academic freedom as it affects the black intellectual community. Academic freedom is not an ivory tower, fad or shibboleth. It is a functional necessity in places where people meet to learn and to teach. In such places, freedom of expression must be limited, in certain specific ways, or universities will be unable to discharge the functions for which they exist.

In the larger society, the state may (as under the constitution of the United States) protect the freedom to express hatred of individuals and groups. But communities constituted for specific purposes have a right to exclude forms of free expression inconsistent with the objectives for which these institutions exist. The First Amendment protects - and rightly so - the right of the individual to pray, and also the right of the individual to blaspheme. But the First Amendment has never, so far as I know, been interpreted as protecting an individual's right to blaspheme in church, temple or synagogue. That would violate the functions for which the institutions in question exist.

And the same principle applies to hate-propaganda on campuses. What colour the hate merchants or blasphemers are is irrelevant. Church members who insisted on inviting known blasphemers to address the congregation would soon cease to be church members. On the same principle, students and faculty members who insist on inviting known hate-merchants to demonstrate on campus should cease to be members of the university, whose values they have betrayed and whose functions they have sabotaged.

Academic freedom is always and everywhere subject to a variety of threats, from within and without. The threats vary in intensity from time to time and from community to community. In relation to the black intellectual community - on which so much of the hope for America's future depends - the threat is peculiarly insidious and poignant; and appears dramatically in the topographical situation of Howard University, which is in the middle of a ghetto.

The university is preparing an elite. In America, that word is taboo, but the reality is there. Naturally there are some in the ghetto who resent an elite from which they are excluded, often by sheer bad luck. This situation generates peculiar, complex and sometimes rending personal tensions and pressures. But these don't make the defence of academic freedom any less important. They make it vital, if the elite of American society is to become non-racial in composition. That won't solve all America's problems, but it could help. The death of a great black university, through misapplication of the doctrine of freedom of expression, would postpone that day. That is why what happened at Howard last month is important, for all Americans, and therefore all the rest of us.

(Photograph omitted)