"They [La Prensa] accused us of suppressing freedom of expression. This was a lie and we could not let them publish it."
That self-defeating statement came from Nelba Blandon, the Nicaraguan Interior Ministry Director of Censorship in 1984. It became a famous example of the Sandinistas' desire to appear tolerant amid its overarching intolerance. It's the kind of tolerance espoused by the Animal Farm pigs -- "All animals are equal but some are more equal than others."
Reminiscent of that, Chancellor Marye Anne Fox of North Carolina State University issued a statement on tolerance this week. Published in Technician, N.C. State's official student newspaper, Fox wrote that "Several students have told me about highly offensive, hurtful and disrespectful graffiti that appeared on the wall of our Free Expression Tunnel on Monday night." Three sentences later she wrote, "The offensive graffiti has been removed, and I have asked our Campus Police to investigate this incident."
It seems necessary at this time to reiterate that the source of the offensive graffiti is called the "Free Expression Tunnel" -- a cherished N.C. State tradition. Be it politics, art, advertising, whatever -- N.C. State students know the drill: get yourself some paint and go to the tunnel. There are no guarantees touching the longevity of one's work. There are certainly no guarantees regarding its sanctity. Other students have the right to paint whatever they want wherever in the tunnel they want, and that's part of the assumed risk. As a student told The News & Observer, "Any time you write something on a wall, you better be prepared to have someone write over it."
The Free Expression Tunnel provides a unique model of what free speech looks like. The expressions therein range from the thoughtful to the inane, and there's such a glut of them that it's just as easy to get lost trying to read them all as it is to ignore them altogether. A student who isn't offended by something in the tunnel is taking the latter tack.
On any given day the tunnel is an unsightly mess, a veritable Tunnel of Babel, with weeks and months of individual scrawlings tangent or even interlaced. Some "tunnel artists" create just by simply cutting through several layers of paint to reveal whatever is on the layer beneath. And then there are the saboteurs. These are the halfwits whose contributions are limited to mockery of existing expressions, ranging from the cartoon-ballooned childish to the deliberately and gratuitously offensive. The latter is what concerned the students and the chancellor.
One night students painted antiwar slogans in the tunnel, which were immediately painted over with prowar statements as well as Confederate banners and racial epithets about Arabs. No one questions that the statements were, as Fox described them, "highly offensive, hurtful and disrespectful."
Rather than retaliating in paint (the time-honored, preferred, and generally expected method), offended students high-tailed it to the administration to bewail their grievance. "As people who believe that white supremacy and heterosexism are fundamental stumbling blocks to any sort of meaningful humanity, we feel it is our duty to challenge racist and homophobic violence whenever we see it," they wrote in a statement. "We have come here today to demand that the administration of N.C. State denounce the environment of hatred and violence that faces its students every day."
One of them explained this dire situation in a letter to Technician: "By painting [the offending slogans], the pro-war camp plainly revealed what we believed all along: Racism and homophobia, and their constant threats of violence, are an ever-present component of racist war." Thus, he reasoned, "This is not an issue of freedom of speech. Individuals who assaulted us with these messages clearly felt quite free to express themselves. This is an issue of safety and justice."
The writer is working toward a master's in "Liberal Studies."
Building on the idea of "assault through messages" -- which has a solid First Amendment foundation and don't you dare cold-cock someone by saying otherwise! -- he continued: "If these individuals feel 'free' enough to threaten us with violence, we have very little trust they will not, in fact, follow through on their threats. If anyone's speech is being threatened, it is ours."
Frighteningly unaware that graffiti is "violence," the offending students apparently had gotten the idea that they could paint whatever they please in the Free Expression Tunnel. Sources close to this author place the blame squarely on the tunnel's name. Regardless of its origin, that notion is something university officials are now working -- with the campus police -- to disabuse. Why? Because apparently the administration bought into the peaceniks' expression-is-assault malarkey.
"It's good to have a place to have free expression," Fox told The News & Observer with Li'l Jack Horner aplomb. "First Amendment speech is valued on campus." At this point one should expect a sentence beginning with "But." Here it is: "But when it goes beyond the boundaries and advocates violence or is just inappropriate behavior among civilized people, that's too much."
Would it also have been "too much" to suggest that the offended students take brush in hand to fight offensive speech with speech? That would be preferable to wasting everyone's time equating an extra layer of paint with violence and the Big Bad 'Isms' Blocking Meaningful Humanity.
Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Tom Stafford told Technician, "Of all the years I've been here, [the Free Expression Tunnel] is the one spot on campus where this happens." That's the sort of admission that begs sardonic comparisons of the speaker to the famed literary companion of Dr. John H. Watson.
Stafford also said "Chancellor Fox and I and the other administrators stand for freedom of speech and a climate that welcomes and supports every person regardless of your race, your gender, your sexual orientation, your disabilities, your ethnic background -- whatever."
Whatever? What about "your opinions"? I.e., "Free Expression"?
No, no, no. That's just "too much." Call the campus constabulary.