Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The best paragraph I read Sunday, but not Monday 

We apparently have a small number of people � perhaps students � who are behaving badly and engaging in behavior that is immature and silly, heinous and hateful, or somewhere in between. But the vast majority of our 16,900 students and our faculty and staff are decent people who come here to work or study hard and treat each other with respect. They do what people on any campus do � go to class, socialize, teach and learn.
That's our President Potter yesterday discussing the Graffiti Game at SCSU, and it's a paragraph I absolutely agree with. I also note with approval that, again, he has refrained from the phrase "hate crime", choosing instead "bias-motivated incidents" and "expressions of hate". The acts "in some cases ha[ve] been criminal activity." I still don't know that someone who has behaved immaturely or silly has expressed hate or is motivate by violence, but it's a step in the right direction.

I think, however, that the essay then takes a wrong turn. Focusing on whether the incidents are harming minority enrollment seems to me to be making the wrong argument. We have fared quite well in enrollments generally because a softening economy reduces the opportunity cost of education so that people choose to attend universities. If our enrollment had gone down, would that really have told us anything? Would the campus' reaction have been any different?

I don't think so. I think the university is simply managing its image and those paragraphs come a little too close to sounding like pandering. And to do so they made a deliberate choice:

As a community, in consultation with faculty, staff and student leaders, we have chosen to express our responses to these challenges openly and just as in-your-face as the people who have scrawled swastikas on walls where students reside and engage in activities. We�ve posted safety alerts and are working closely with St. Cloud police in investigating what in some cases has been criminal activity.

For that we have drawn attention to our campus � some of it unpleasant. We will continue to do so because, while every campus and every community grapples with these same issues, we choose to bring them out into the open and unite against the hate they represent.

Context, however, matters, as we'll see below.

When I was a junior high student I was fascinated with war. One of the ways I expressed that fascination was to draw pictures of dogfights of aircraft. I'm quite sure I put swastikas on the tail of a Messerschmitt Bf109 or a Stuka. (Warning: Clicking those links leads you to photos of aircraft sporting swastikas.) If one were teaching WW2 history here at SCSU, would it be a problem to show these photos in the classroom? I loved looking at books of aircraft in flight and combat; I had many of the Ballantine series of books on World War 2 on my shelves. Had I taken, say, the one for the Me-109 (with a full side view of the aircraft on its cover), and had it in my dorm room, would this have been a problem if, say, I was reading it in a student dorm lounge?

Suppose a student in his or her dorm who loves Mel Brooks is watching "The Producers". He leaves the door open for friends. When the dancing swastika comes on stage during "Springtime for Hitler", if a student should pass by the doorway and is offended, is the student watching the movie expressing hate? Is this a "bias-motivated incident" or an "expression of hate"?

Now instead he puts on his dorm door a poster for the movie, say, the last of the three here. (Warning: swastika on that link) Code of conduct violation? He instead puts it on the announcement board on his dorm floor for the purpose of inviting dormmates to his room for movie and popcorn. Violation?

Suppose he sketches it instead, including the swastika? Crime?

Silly and immature, perhaps. Insensitive, well, possibly. But hardly worth an effort like we've had here, hardly something for which "resistance is required." We really aren't the only campus that deals with these issues this way (take a look, for example, at Grinnell College) yet we seem also to be headed into the area of insisting on certain campus reactions as being acceptable and others not. What we really need is a discussion of where that line is, where freedom of inquiry abuts the desire of many on campus to call these swastikas disgusting. As long as the response to speech is itself speech, all well and good. But prosecuting speech is a dangerous place for a university to go; thinking through my Producers in the dorm story is a way to think about what lines are you ready to draw? Such a discussion would also have helped faculty and students understand the debate over, say, posting the cartoons of Mohammad at Century College.

The problem with President Potter's article is that it gets us no closer to understanding where that line is. There's no discussion of where free speech ends and expressions of hate begins, either in his own view or in the view of the courts (where I think the line is further in favor of free speech.) That was the better than best paragraph missing from President Potter's article and a for-now missed opportunity; I hope sometime we get to hear it.


The following day (Monday), the campus paper headline reads "Whiteboard swastika vandal identified". I do not know whether drawing a swastika on a whiteboard is vandalism; who has the property right to the whiteboard would seem to be one question. You could argue it is, but that makes the swastika no different than, say, a Ron Paul sticker plastered on a whiteboard. The article says the student was identified by another student, responding to one of the many safety alerts on campus. President Potter spoke Thursday night to student government:
"This is a learning community and one of the things that's most important to us is that having identified someone who intentionally thought to hurt others through hateful expression that we not react with hate when others are identified," said President Potter on the subject.
I'm unclear on the meaning of that; I would assume that our students are intelligent enough to not seek to assault someone who draws a swastika on a whiteboard. If we are worried about this, again, why the "Resistance Required!" labels on our safety alerts?
Many have been questioning whether or not these are actual hate crimes that are being committed. President Potter said by legal definition they are in fact hate crimes. A hate crime does not require physical assault; it does require the intent to intimidate a specific individual.

"Whether it is a hate crime or a copy cat act to make fun of the administrations response it is still hurtful to the community," Said President Potter to finish discussion on the issue. "I would like student government to stand with me and the students that have been targeted and say 'we will not accept this.' It will take a leadership role to get the majority of the community to stand up for our core values for what is right."
Not every act has been a crime, as the Times article has noted, therefore not all the acts could possibly rise to a "hate crime". Some of these acts are "behavior that is immature and silly, heinous and hateful, or somewhere in between," in Potter's own words. I believe the administration knows this; perhaps the reporting here omitted something to indicate Potter drawing a more careful line between those things which are crimes and those which are free speech that a majority of the campus finds repugnant. Nor do we know at all whether the whiteboard vandal (if indeed it is vandalism) was targeting any "specific individual", which would meet Potter's definition of a hate crime. It's too soon to say why it was drawn or who was the intended audience.

I see nothing wrong with his asking the student government to help him "stand up for our core values." I'm just wondering whether "freedom of inquiry" is in the core?

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