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You don't get to pick free speech

Free speech was in shorter supply than usual at Brown University Friday.

That was the day a group of politically correct nitwits decided it was proper to seize most of the press run of the Brown Daily Herald, the independent student newspaper.

The paper's offense was to publish an ad by conservative provocateur David Horowitz denouncing the notion of paying reparations to descendants of slaves.

Curiously, the ad ran on Tuesday; it was not in the papers that disappeared. Apparently, it took the murky left-wing coalition on campus a few days to ramp up.

The ad had been rejected by dozens of campus papers, prompting a nationwide debate on free speech. Even on Salon, an online magazine Horowitz writes for, his colleagues have lined up to praise or denounce him.

In some circles, Horowitz has long been viewed as an irritant, and for good reason. He is the most strident kind of conservative commentator, a reformed liberal. A onetime Black Panthers sympathizer, Horowitz now regularly trashes anything resembling a civil rights agenda. When he can spare the time from attacking Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, Horowitz has made a subcareer of chronicling his political evolution rightward. He seems to view the changes in his personal politics _ wrongly _ as a metaphor for how 1960s idealism ran off the rails.

His arguments against reparations? Horowitz argues that the emergence of a large black middle class proves that there is no need for them. And that even if there is a debt, it is not clear who owes it or to whom, because a clear majority of Americans are descendants of people who did not live in the country during slavery. He can't resist the occasional button-pushing barb, lightening the tone, but trivializing his argument.

Is the ad racist? Not really. I was far more annoyed than offended and found myself wishing that Horowitz had addressed the issue with the seriousness it deserves. I didn't think he said anything unspeakable, and, while I disagreed with him, as in some measure I almost always do, I thought the ad was lively and, on a couple of points, provocative.

Horowitz must have been happy when campus papers began refusing the ad, because their actions gave him much-desired publicity. The students at Brown who stole the papers probably made his year. It's not easy to make a cause celebre out of a conservative flamethrower, but they may have succeeded.

Patrick Moos, the editor in chief of the Brown Daily Herald, said the hypocrites who are protesting the ad have threatened to continue their assault on the First Amendment.

They have the obligatory list of demands. They want the $725 Horowitz paid the paper to be donated to Brown's Third World Center, a center for minority students and issues. They also want a page of the paper to respond to Horowitz.

Moos and his colleagues have rightly told the protesters to take a hike. Saturday, the paper's staff handed out the few surviving copies of Friday's issue in the school cafeteria. Moos said the paper will continue to circulate and added that legal action might be a possibility.

It's so obvious that blocking free speech is wrong that it almost seems like a waste of space to say it again. Yet the urge to suppress anything "offensive" is stubborn. People cling to this crazy notion of supporting free speech as long as they agree with it. You don't get to pick and choose.

Horowitz is right about at least one thing. There is no good reason reparations should not be a subject of lively debate, and college campuses should be ideal forums for such a debate.

A debate at Brown might be the one good thing to emerge from this dreary episode. Moos said reparations had never actually been mentioned in the Daily Herald one way or another until last Tuesday, and he'd never really heard anyone at Brown talk about it.

Now that has all changed.

Adrian Walker is a Boston Globe columnist.

Boston Globe