A Brief People’s History of Free Speech at DePaul
By Matt Muchowski
Conservative commentator David Horowitz recently visited DePaul University in Chicago to rant and rave about how allegedly the school was persecuting conservative students and faculty. Someone from the outside like him can only hear the tip of the iceberg about free speech at DePaul through conservative blogs complaining about how Zionist professor Klocek didn’t have his contract renewed or how an anti-affirmative action bake sale was shut down an hour early. I’ve spent the last nine months researching what I call “a People’s History of DePaul.” A lot of Horowitz’s claims about liberal and leftist indoctrination in academia, and DePaul specifically, are more hot air than actual fact.
Consider what happened in 1986 when the speakers series decided to invite then-president of the National Organization for Women, Eleanor Smeal. She was promptly disinvited by the higher ups of the school because she was pro-choice and DePaul is Catholic. I personally read several of the hundreds of letters the school received, many written on cute Christian letterhead, defending the decision, and deriding academic freedom as giving people like Smeal an opportunity to speak. Ultimately, students and faculty got organized and forced the school to back down, and while it still refused to fund the event, students organized to raise the money to have Smeal speak.
A similar event happened in 1996 when the school refused to allow students to form a pro-choice advocacy group on campus, even though student government, faculty council and a student referendum all supported the creation of the group. A few years later, our school newspaper, the DePaulia printed an anti-choice advertisement. The DePaulia tried to claim that it was just paid space but admitted that the school prohibited them from running ads which countered Catholic teaching, such as “pro-choice clinics, tobacco ads or other `immoral’ things.”
Since the beginning of this decade, students have hosted an annual performance of the Vagina Monologues, a feminist play. While it’s enormously popular, featuring sold-out crowds every time it is performed, in 2006 fundamentalist activist mailed hundreds of postcards that read, “‘academic freedom’ no excuse for promotion of sin on a Catholic campus.”
In 1996, the women’s center invited Jocelyn Elders to speak. Elders was the Surgeon General under Clinton and was fired because she promoted masturbation. As a result, the director of the center received 18 death threats for having the audacity to invite a pro-masturbation speaker.
A similar thing occurred last year when a person Horowitz debated, Ward Churchill, came to DePaul. Conservative students and outside activists attempted to have his speech canceled and there was at least one bomb threat, but the event went on.
This is all very personal to me because in 2003, as a freshman, I ran for student government. On my promotional flier I had statements against the PATRIOT Act and Coca-Cola, and called to make student government more democratic and to “allow a diversity of political ideas to flourish.” Elections by-laws required us to have the Elections Operations Board (EOB) approve the fliers. We submitted them expecting no problems. Instead we received a letter from Charles Marshall, the EOB chair. It read, “there are some glaring problems with your submissions which must be corrected before I can consider them for posting and distribution... The statement about the Patriot Act could be considered a political statement and therefore cannot be used on materials. The statement referring to Coca-Cola could be considered a political statement and therefore cannot be used on materials. The statement suggesting that SGA become more political is in its very essence a political statement and therefore cannot be used on materials.”
At an SGA debate between my friend Guiseppe and a conservative student, the moderator announced: “Seeing as how Student Government is the voice of the students at DePaul University, any criticism of student government will be taken as slander against the entire student body of DePaul and the offending candidate will be written a warning.”
We saw this as a clear abridgment of our free speech and ability to have a democratic student government and handed the fliers out anyway. We were then disqualified for handing those fliers out. This happened despite the history of a student government which took political stands on issues. In 1970 after Kent State, they endorsed shutting down the school for a day of protest. In 1973 they endorsed the boycott on California grapes in solidarity with the United Farmworkers Union and Cesar Chavez.
So my question for Horowitz is: where were you then? Where were FIRE’s statements about DePaul threatening free speech during all these incidents? Where were the articles in Front page magazine? If these incidents I just listed are examples of right-wing indoctrination, why doesn’t your network take them up with the vigor that they do with supposed left wing indoctrination? For example, in his blacklisting book “The Professors,” Horowitz spent a whole chapter on Norman Finkelstein, whose parents survived the Nazi Holocaust, but Horowitz did not even spend a whole page on Arthur Butz, the engineering professor at Northwestern who has written a book denying that the Nazi Holocaust happened.
Is it possible that Horowitz is not concerned with free speech as a whole but rather only defending a narrow spectrum of speech? If so, what is included in that spectrum? What kind of speech are you really defending? Let’s look at conservative DePaul student Nick Hahn III, who moderated and helped host Horowitz’s appearance at DePaul. Hahn had posted on his public facebook account a series of notes where he calls Islam and homosexuality barbaric. He calls Chicago’s gay pride parade the scourge of America and armpit of Chicago and describes the satisfaction he received from flipping off a participant in the parade.
What about Thomas Klocek’s speech? Saying that Palestine does not exist and implied that my friend Salma Nassar isn’t Palestinian? Saying that “not all Muslims and Arabs are terrorists but all terrorists are Muslim”? Really? I had no idea that Timothy McVeigh was a practicing Muslim, let along George Bush. But more than his speech, let’s look at his actions, shouting at students, making a questionable hand gesture, and throwing their literature back at them.
Let’s look at what the libel groups like the ADL say about Finkelstein, and which Horowitz allows writers like Stephen Plaut to print in his magazine. The ADL calls Finkelstein a Holocaust denier, but consider this quote from his book, The Holocaust Industry: “My original interest in the Nazi holocaust was personal. Both my father and mother were survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Nazi concentration camps. Apart from my parents, every family member on both sides was exterminated by the Nazis.” Hard to deny it happened if you’re admitting your parents survived it, right? Why weren’t you defending Finkelstein while he was being fired from colleges in New York because of his commitment to setting the record straight about Israeli human rights abuses against Palestinians?
Also consider Horowitz’s book where he declares that DePaul professor and head of the Global Islamic Studies Department, Aminah Scott McCloud, was a member of the Nation of Islam. Well, she’s Black, and she’s Muslim, but she’s not a member of the Nation of Islam.
Let’s also not forget Horowitz’s statements about slavery, that it was only white Christians that created an anti-slavery movement. So I guess the whole slave rebellion in Haiti was just my professors indoctrinating me.
If you want to talk about indoctrination, just look at ROTC and business schools, which Front Page magazine never attacks. Horowitz might claim that they teach the truth — what works. I would show you the half-dozen homeless people I passed today. I would show you the starving in countries crippled by debt to the World Bank and IMF, and ask if what these economics classes are actually doing is brainwashing students to believe that capitalism works.
There is a difference between civil discussion, and hate-motivated harassment, between legitimate public discourse and libel. Libel like numerous racist things the DePaulia has printed over the years. In 1993, the DePaulia ran the same photo of the annual Black Student Union MLKJ day peace march two weeks in a row. The first week, was about the march. The next week ran the same photo but with the headline, “DePaul Student Arrested for Battery.” Two years later they ran an article about a fight that broke out at a party sponsored by a black student group. They misrepresented the facts, quoted only police officers and none of the student organizers, and made it seem as though the fight occurred because it was black students. Students took action and occupied the DePaulia offices, preventing the publication of the paper for two weeks. While every major newspaper in the area condemned the occupation as abridging the free speech of the newspaper, members of Concerned Black Students explained, “Black students can no longer allow the DePaulia to manipulate DePaul’s community in thinking that they are an ethical, dependable and unbiased means of information. The community must be presented with the facts! They must also understand the detriment of biased and incomplete journalism. Printing editorials and articles based on falsehoods and untruths is not an expression of `free speech’. It is nothing more than bad journalism.”
Free speech and dissent do have a legitimate role in a liberatory educational setting. However, bigotry and falsehoods do not. In 1998 one student, James Rowe, who admitted that “Drag queens and queer kiss-ins make me sick,” wanted to form an anti-gay group called “Values DePaul,” to “promote heterosexual values and ensure equal representation of heterosexuality on campus.” Because you know drag queens are always beating football jocks with baseball bats on campus.
The group was denied its creation. The DePaulia lamented that the denial of the group was a bad thing since some students might be afraid to voice their views because they might be labeled homophobic. I think that was the right decision because bigots should be afraid to be bigots.
In the end of the day, conservatives like Horowitz appeal to a Constitution that belonged to rich, white, slave owning men who are now dead, to defend a concept of “free speech” which has little actual bearing to material reality.
Their concept of free speech assumes we live in a society without class exploitation, without racism, without the things that divide us. Just because the declaration of Independence and Constitution says that all men are free and equal, does not make it so.
But, like they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, the first step to solving something is admitting you have a problem. Let’s admit that under capitalism, we are not free and equal, and thus do not have free speech. From there we can struggle to create a society where we are free.
Under capitalism, people are deprived of their livelihoods, then forced to pay for the necessities of life, so they apply for a job. While it appears as a voluntary act, it is in its essence sacrificing one’s will. As Locke said, “the authority of the rich proprietor and the subjection of the needy beggar began not from the possession of the lord, but the consent of the poor man who preferred being his [proprietor’s] subject to starving.”
You do not elect your boss in the farm field, or on the sweatshop floor or in your store; rather they select you from a reserve pool of labor. Similar to how Congress draws district lines. If you speak up, try to exercise any of that “free speech” as a maid, a janitor, a car assembly worker, an electrician, and try to demand a better wage, health insurance, a union— your ass gets fired, unless you overpower your boss.
Which is what has happened in certain sectors of academia. Those who educate with a mind towards liberation overpowered the hurdles placed in front of them in order to become respected members of the academic community. Even at a private Catholic school like DePaul, the degree to which literal interpretations of the Bible and church dogma have been subverted is truly heroic: a gay studies program, Muslim prayer room, a Jewish prayer room, member of the Worker Rights Consortium. There are steps to go still — there is still an unelected and unaccountable board of trustees, the school doesn’t allow condoms to be passed out on campus, we still have to kick ROTC off campus, and we still need to pay reparations to Puerto Ricans gentrified out of Lincoln Park partly because of DePaul.
Horowitz is trying to take away the gains we have made. But I still have hope in you David. You can still be a prodigal son and return to the left. I would recommend you start by signing this letter, defending the academic freedom of the vagina monologues. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can sign this letter supporting Finkelstein’s academic freedom as well.
Update: I presented this speech to David Horowitz at his appearance at DePaul. This version was slightly modified to be addressed to readers of Illinois Acadame instead of David Horowitz. (To read sources for this article, go to www.ilaaup.org.) When I started to read this speech in the Q&A section of the event, I read up to the banning of the pro-choice club in 1996 before I was shouted at and told that my speech was too long and threatened to have the microphone taken away from me. I jumped to the end and offered to have Horowitz sign a letter defending the Vagina Monologues and if he was really adventurous, a letter defending Norman Finkelstein. He took both letters but refused to sign either.