After the night I had Tuesday in my role as faculty adviser to the Bridgewater State University Comment, it seemed appropriate to revisit the last column I wrote for my own college newspaper at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in 1996. The importance of free speech — and its importance both in newspapers and in college campuses — is one of the few views I hold that hasn’t changed much since I was in college:
from the Massachusetts Daily Collegian
May 15, 1996
by Dave Copeland
“Censorship cannot be employed selectively; when anyone’s freedom of speech is denied, everyone else’s is threatened.”
- Alan M. Dershowitz
“And stupid stuff, it makes us shout.”
- line from the song “UMass” by the Pixies.
A few weeks ago I was sitting in on a friend’s radio show and we got to talking about a guy he had met who had one of those crappy jobs you inevitably end up taking at one point or another to make your way through school. His job wasn’t as nasty as shoveling out septic tanks or as tedious as telemarketing, but it wasn’t the type of thing you’d want to do for the rest of your life, either.
One of us made a comment on the air along the lines of “That guy’s job sucks.” We didn’t say the guy sucked, we didn’t say his mother sucked — if anything, we were sympathizing with a guy whose job entailed sitting alone in a barn on the outskirts of campus. But no sooner had we made our comment then the phone line lit up with a complaint from a caller who felt we were being unfair to the guy.
“I think what you said about that guy is pretty disrespectful and you probably shouldn’t be saying it.”
And this is the stupid stuff at UMass that makes people shout. One of the only reasons why I am looking forward to getting away from here for good is to finally be liberated from a consolidation of people like this caller who feel it is their right to tell others what they should be saying and thinking.
Pretty much anything that is considered controversial that manages to find a way not this paper gets there only after the already overworked editors ask the question “Will our office get stormed if we run this?” and “How can we cover our asses on this one?”
Two years ago the Collegian was heavily criticized for running a pro-life advertisement that clearly stated it did not reflect the view of the paper. Last year, people couldn’t believe the paper would run an anti-Semitic letter from a retired professor. Another racist letter from a member of the campus community never made it to the pages of the paper this semester.
A satirical piece I wrote on Amherst “townies” last year was greeted with a slew of letters asking “How could the Collegian run this?” even though it explicitly states at the top of this page that the opinions expressed here are those of the individual writer.
No newspaper should be subjected to demands to suppress information. It’s contrary to their only public purpose. As a society, we have created a cruel and twisted world, and for me, information has been the only defense I’ve had against the bitter truth that reality doesn’t always have a happy ending.
But there remains an abundance of people in these parts who are brimming with dopey optimism and would rather not know that there are indeed racists, bigots and other wretched people thinking bad thoughts not just in this world, but right here in the “happy” valley. It is a lot easier to nix the thoughts and ideas of the wicked and mean than it is to actually deal with them.
Other denizens of the valley run around like the cast members of “The Simpsons,” making a knee-jerk crisis out of every little issue before they’ve even taken the time to get information on it. “If we don’t like it, we’re not gonna think about it! We’re going to storm Mayor Quimby’s office!”
The First Amendment is the only right you have that ensures the protection of all your other rights. To attack that right in any shape or form is to attack your own freedom.
When I leave next week, the greatest advantage I take away from UMass is the ability to express myself and speak freely in a way that is drastically more effective than plastering my politics in the form of lame cliches on the bumper of my car. To me, that is the price of admission I paid to toil away here for eight semesters and five years.
And if there is anybody out there who wants to take that right away from me, I’d have to say that they suck.
Dave Copeland is a Collegian columnist.