To the Editor;

We are always bemused whenever a supposedly liberal and academically fine university, one that professes to embrace diversity, displays only hostility towards students’ personal freedom and individual differences. What possible business is it of Fairfield University to interfere with — much less probe and punish — any student for wearing makeup and going to a ghetto-themed party off-campus?

Fairfield’s President Jeffrey von Arx has a limited, stilted view of the ghetto-themed party — as it is “perpetuating racial stereotypes.” Really? Does donning costumes constitute perpetuating stereotypes of one racial or cultural group? If so, how do blacks — or whites — for that matter, as a group dress or act? Room must be made for mockery, cultural send-ups, satire and lampooning as wholly within acceptable realms of political expression and as the very essence of individual freedom.

All the hoopla over the off-campus so-called “ghetto” party seems overwrought, especially when an entire political science class was devoted to “discussing” the offensive nature of the ghetto-themed party. Offensive to whom? Was there even room for debate in such a class? As the University convenes other forums to “discuss” the off-campus party, will there be speakers on the “other side” — the side the University seems to take offense at, that would embrace freedom of expression and the right to go to a private party off campus that might not be to the taste of the majoritarian’s values? Or are the University’s singular and guilt-laden views about “race” the party line to toe for all discourse?

How indeed can there be an atmosphere of free expression in any setting where the University president is investigating the off-campus party as unacceptable behavior on the part of the Fairfield student? From where will the “other side” emerge?

Perhaps it is that the students who allegedly attended a ghetto-themed party were whites is what truly offends President von Arx. Would he be so quick to condemn a ghetto-themed party either on or off campus if the attendees were blacks and not whites? Or are there double standards at play at Fairfield University? In any case, minority students ought to be on guard — for if anybody is likely to give offense on more than rare occasions it is the minority viewpoint, and it is truly the minority viewpoint that is more likely to draw fire and condemnation. That was the case when a black female student at a private school, for example — who had dressed up as a “white boy” — was roundly condemned by school authorities and was forced by the school authorities to resign as student body president. Censorship is the enemy of free expression and cultural diversity.

Mostly, we are concerned about the censorious instincts of groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and by the seeming silence of the American Civil Liberties Union. I was for many years an official of both organizations. The NAACP always understood the minority student’s particular interest in freedom of expression and for the protection and encouragement of cultural diversity. There cannot be cultural diversity in a one-dimensional world, when only certain ideas and modes of behavior are acceptable or politically tolerable. That’s not the campus environment on which any black leader could have survived much less flourished in the 1960s and 1970s — nor so today. So, why has the ACLU been so reticent to side with the students, to protect their right of free expression and private association? When I was vice president of the ACLU (National), our policy of defending students’ rights applied to public and private universities. It was our strong advice to all college authorities for them to respect student freedom and privacy. College students should be free to organize their personal lives and determine their private behavior free from institutional interference, we argued. The college should not regard itself as the arbiter of personal behavior or morals.

College regulation is not appropriate to deny students their privacy or their personal freedom but solely to truly protect the actual health and safety and academic pursuits of the other members of the academic community. Creating a so-called “safe space” for students from other students’ disconcerting free expression, from other students’ politically incorrect speech, from mockery and spoofs of cultural stereotypes and the like — or for banning or punishing attendance at ribald ghetto-themed parties, especially when they are held off-campus (and not in university-owned housing) is not the legitimate exercise of university power.

Michael Meyers*


New York Civil Rights Coalition

* The writer is a former Assistant Executive Director of the (National) NAACP and a former vice president of the (National) ACLU.

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