UMass Makes a Statement
When former Boston Herald columnist Don Feder (above) was heckled off the stage last March at UMass, the incident attracted national attention. However, locally there was the typical veil of silence from our local media and the University itself. Then in April an op-ed column appeared in the Boston Globe. An excerpt:
America's campuses are seeing a growing movement by students to shut off debate by organized groups and silence speakers with whom they disagree. Rather than engage in the give-and-take that should be characteristic of the university as a "marketplace of ideas," these students have decided that opposing views don't even bear hearing. And all too often they are aided by administrators whose policies reward hecklers rather than students who wish to engage in civil debate and dialogue.
UMass is one of those campuses. After word got out that students were planning to protest Feder's speech, the UMass-Amherst Police Department pressured Feder's hosts, the Republican Club, into paying nearly three times as much in security costs for the event as they had planned. Of course, the student hecklers disrupted the event anyway with no interference by the police.
Feder's hecklers were thereby handed a double victory by the university - not only did they manage to silence Feder, but they also succeeded in forcing their political enemies on campus to pay a huge security bill for little return. This tactic was so successful it's hard to imagine that the same UMass students won't do it again, and it's unlikely that the lesson has been lost on students who sympathize with Feder.
The real casualty of the heckling "arms race" fostered by such policies will be the possibility of getting a truly liberal education. The more violent and disruptive the threatened protest, the higher the security costs will be demanded of the host, giving those most willing to be violent the strongest veto over campus discourse.
At the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), where I work, we tell students that if they have gone through four years of college without ever being offended or having their beliefs challenged, they should ask for their money back. John Stuart Mill, in his 1859 treatise "On Liberty," observed that nobody is infallible, and that an opinion we detest might be right, or, even if wrong, might "contain a portion of truth" that we would otherwise have missed. Might Feder's opinions have contained that "portion of truth?" UMass students may never know.
Several days later the following letter appeared in the Globe:
PEOPLE FAMILIAR with the University of Massachusetts at Amherst know that it has a long tradition of fostering discourse and the open exchange of ideas, and that groups from the left, right, and in between vigorously exercise their free speech with great frequency.
Given this history, it was perplexing to read the April 9 op-ed by Robert Shibley of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education ("Why no one should be silenced on campus"). His interpretation of events misses the mark.
UMass-Amherst did not place a surcharge on the Republican Club because we anticipated protesters for a speech delivered by columnist Don Feder. Rather, the police increased the charge because the number of anticipated attendees changed, and because the Republican Club representative declined to move the event to a venue more suited to the presentation. While Feder was heckled, the police handled the situation in the room without difficulty, which included removing one person. Feder chose to discontinue his speech.
The figure in dispute is less than $500. The university does not wish to perpetuate the perception of a controversy. So, to emphasize our commitment to free and open debate, the university has decided to refund the difference between a fee for a 70-person event and a fee for a 150-person event.
Executive director of news and media relations
University of Massachusetts at Amherst
I don't like the tone of that letter, which falsely implies that free speech is not an issue on campus and hasn't been in the past. It is also unfortunate that one must read out of town papers to discover these things. However, it is at least a formal, public commitment by the University to free speech, and more importantly they dropped the fee. In other encouraging news, controversial right-wing academic Mike Adams, who was heckled off the stage a few years ago, returned to UMass recently and spoke without being shouted into silence. So that's progress.
I'm saddened by the news that Hampshire Gazette/Amherst Bulletin reporter Mary Cary (above) has been laid off due to increasing budgetary pressures at those papers. But at least Carey is now free to dive unimpeded into the exciting new internet revolution, with all the economic opportunity and adventure that entails. The real sympathy should go out to Carey's former co-workers who are still stuck onboard a sinking ship. Unlike Carey, who has been blogging for years, most of them have failed to establish an independent online presence to serve as a cushion once their own inevitable pink slip arrives.
Is there no hope for newspaper organizations? It depends upon whether they can re-invent themselves. As what? New Media visionary Jeff Jarvis recently made a list of what a newspaper is, what it is not and what it must become.
* Newspapers are no longer magnets that will draw people in. Newspapers must go to where the people are. Repeat after me: “If the news is that important, it will find me.” Think distributed.
* Newspapers online are still selling scarcity to advertisers: just so many banners presented to just so many eyeballs. Google instead sells performance and that is what motivated it to create AdSense and to get more and more targeted and efficient and relevant ads all around the web. Think abundance.
* Newspapers are inefficient. I spoke with an editor the other day who broke down the 300-person newsroom of yore and conceded that only 50 of those people created journalism. I would add that when working with a much larger network in a new news ecosystem, the news organization can be even smaller and still see as much news reported. That’s what no one ever talks about when whining about how to support news. Think efficiency.
* Newspapers are no longer monopolies. They have new competition. That’s why they can’t set the price for content or ads anymore. The market will. Get used to it. Think like capitalists.
* Newspapers are no longer factories. Not of paper, not of content. The new news organization will add value by organizing news, enabling it to be made elsewhere, helping it to be made better and bigger in a larger ecosystem. Think collaborative.
* Newspapers are stale. The minute - minute - they say anything, what they say can - if they’re lucky - become part of the conversation and then that knowledge is a commodity. The value to the old product disappears. It’s not the product that’s valuable. Think process.
* Newspapers aren’t conversations. And conversations are the new distribution. If you can’t be searched and linked - if you close up behind a wall - you won’t be found. Think open.
* Newspapers can no longer be about control. They have to be about enabling the community to share its own knowledge and succeed doing so. Think platform.
* Newspapers aren’t paper. That’s what’s killing them. Think digital.
Think. Just think.
When passing through downtown Northampton this morning I stumbled upon this rally for Bike Week. There were people giving earnest speeches in favor of biking.
Naturally many people attended by bicycle, creating a sort of bike parking crisis.
I will be joining the Valley biking brotherhood next month when I get my own bike! You can be sure to see many future posts about my biking adventures.
Balliet Archival Material
A prominent former classmate of mine at The World Famous Thomas M. Balliet Elementary School sent me this clipping from our third grade year. I refuse to figure out exactly what year that would be - it's too depressing.
(click to enlarge)
Grace Slick has been reclusive in recent years, but surfaced for an interview in which she discussed why she wrote songs such as "White Rabbit" which were based on the work of Lewis Carroll:
The thing I like about Alice is that she did what she wanted. When you get old it's not what you did that you regret - it's what you didn't do. Alice went for what she wanted and I like that about her. When we were kids our parents would sit there, reading Alice in Wonderland to us kids, with a glass of scotch in their hand. Then when we grew up they would say, "Why are you taking drugs? Where did you get that idea?"
Let's think about the books they read to us. In The Wizard of Oz they fall asleep in an opium field - and wake up to see an Emerald City! In Peter Pan, sprinkle a little white dust on you and suddenly you can fly! In Alice in Wonderland Alice takes at least four drugs - literally, it isn't even an illusion or anything. She takes a bite off a magic mushroom, smokes a hookah with the catepillar; she eats something that makes her literally high, and then has to take something else to come back down. When our parents used to read us these stories, were they even listening to what they were reading?
"White Rabbit" is a song that even after 40 years keeps resurfacing, like this techno version made for one of the Resident Evil films.