Voltaire is said to have commented to a critic, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Since he died two years after the Declaration of Independence, the French philosopher wasn't referring to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Diana Chapman Walsh, president of Wellesley College (who does have the First Amendment), has done Voltaire one better. She has sent a letter to 40,000 parents and alumni denouncing a book by a black Wellesley professor whose views are similar to (and drawn from) the anti-Semitic drivel of Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam. In effect, Ms. Walsh outshouts Professor Anthony Martin. "I find your views abhorrent," she says, "but you have every right to express them."
College presidents and others who must deal with childish, racist and abusive language in America's free press, take note. Abusers of free speech sometimes can be countered with louder free speech. Mr. Martin had accused Wellesley of engaging in a campaign to still his unproven assertion that Jews were disproportionately responsible for the slave trade. "We will not censor him in any way," Ms. Walsh said, "but we will censure him."
Thus, Ms. Walsh won a game of oneupwomanship. She put the lie to Mr. Martin's accusation that there is a campaign to squelch his views. In so doing, she risked having those views more widely disseminated. But a college president's pulpit is a powerful one, and in this case she used it to make something of an ass of Mr. Martin.
The same tactic can be used on college campuses, where the student press often expresses insensitive ideas without realizing their significance and potential for real trouble. It has always been thus. In the 1960s, the aggrieved torched buildings; in the 1990s, they steal the newspaper.
Each case is different, of course, but sometimes the best way for authorities to address a First Amendment crisis is to condemn the offending statement loudly while staunchly defending the offenders' right to publish it. For student editors, that can be a learning experience (which is what higher education is about). Alas, it probably hasn't been for Professor Martin.