Kent Before the Storm

A young editor braces for a nationwide brawl over free speech on campus.

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Chris Wetterich anticipates a spring rain of attention - on his paper's actions. - Walter  Novak
Chris Wetterich anticipates a spring rain of attention on his paper's actions.
For now, Chris Wetterich is still just a college kid. Nobody's called him craven or courageous in the national media. He hasn't had to explain himself to a mob of fellow students. He hasn't been informed that he works for a "racist propaganda machine."

Not yet, anyway.

Wetterich is the editor of Kent State University's student newspaper, The Daily Kent Stater. It's the kind of r´sum´-builder that would normally put him in position to chum for the best jobs and internships after graduation. This spring, however, it's put Wetterich in the middle of a civil liberties debate embroiling college campuses nationwide, a controversy that's managed to spark hissy fits among First Amendment advocates and student activists from Berkeley to Brown. Now it's Kent's turn.

The hubbub started last month, after conservative commentator and author David Horowitz began submitting a paid advertisement to college newspapers around the nation. Titled "Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery Is a Bad Idea -- and Racist Too," the campaign attempts to refute the idea that black Americans should be compensated for slavery.

In the ad, Horowitz argues that reparations would send a damaging message to the black community: that reparations have already been paid "in the form of welfare benefits and racial preferences," and that, had it not been for "the anti-slavery attitudes and military power of white Englishmen and Americans, the slave trade would not have been brought to an end."

"Where is the gratitude of black America and its leaders for those gifts?" he asks.

At the schools where the ad appeared, the indignation has been as predictable as it's been vociferous. At the University of California-Berkeley, students protested outside offices of The Daily Californian, demanding the paper run an apology for what they called a racist, oppressive smear. After the ad appeared in The Badger Herald at the University of Wisconsin, demonstrators insisted the editor resign, and one student group ran a counter-ad in the competing student daily, The Cardinal, calling The Badger Herald a "racist propaganda machine." At Brown, copies of the student daily disappeared after the Horowitz ad ran.

Horowitz, delighted by the response, has called the protesters "campus fascists," intolerant of any ideas that stray from the liberal orthodoxy endemic to universities.

He isn't the only one throwing darts. Journalists and civil libertarians across the country have been quick to charge demonstrators with bulldozing the First Amendment in the name of racial sensitivity.

After The Daily Californian printed a front-page apology for letting the paper become "an inadvertent vehicle for bigotry," the student editor got more than 600 e-mails, many telling him he'd copped out. One San Francisco columnist said the "UC" in UC-Berkeley stood for "University of Censorship."

Indeed, the controversy has now become more about the precarious state of free speech in higher education than about the merits of slave reparations. Says Kent State journalism professor Barb Hipsman-Springer: "Maybe people don't understand free speech. Maybe people don't understand one of the basic tenets of our democracy is that many people should have many voices."

For weeks, Wetterich and his Stater colleagues read about the uproar, watching it pinball from school to school. "The stealing of the newspapers at Brown surprised me," says Wetterich. "The protests, that didn't surprise me at all."

Then, three weeks ago, Horowitz submitted the ad to the Stater. (So far, it's the only student paper in Ohio that's been approached.) Wetterich has been weighing his options ever since. "If ever there was a real-life situation where we're going to have to apply what we've learned, this is it," he says. "This is probably the most important decision I'll make as editor here."

The paper's editors have already had numerous discussions about the ad, but the final decision on whether to publish it won't be made until Wetterich -- who has final say -- has more time to discuss its contents with faculty and "leaders in the minority community." If the paper does run the ad, it could be published alongside a series of articles Stater staffers have been working on all semester about the status of minority students.

"There are a lot of race issues on this campus, like any college," says Wetterich. "We thought it might be a good idea to go and examine that."

Whatever the context, some black students are incredulous that The Stater would even consider running the ad. "It's going to create a very negative atmosphere on campus," says D'Andra Mull, a member of Black United Students and executive director of Kent's Undergraduate Student Senate. "There's no valid reason for them to print that. It's not like it's a source of information. It's not like they're trying to sell anything. What is their intent in printing that?"

Even before Horowitz approached the paper, The Stater was no stranger to controversy. In January, it raised the ire of some black students when it published a letter from a white student who criticized writer Quantia Shelby after she wrote a column titled "What if Africans never faced slavery?"

"While slavery was a horrible thing, it established the presence blacks currently have," the letter noted. "Without it, blacks would be suffering from the current plagues in Africa. Be thankful, Quantia, that you aren't there. It's a dump. 'Mother Africa' is the crack-smoking daughter of 'Mother Earth.' Without slavery, you wouldn't have a press to print on or a pot to piss in."

The letter's author, sophomore Evan Doughty, came under heavy fire on The Stater's letters page. Some students also questioned why the paper would run his statements in the first place.

In response, Wetterich wrote a column explaining The Stater's decision -- a column that will look either prescient or silly, depending on his decision regarding the Horowitz ad. "The Stater . . . has a duty to print a wide range of opinions and ideas -- whether or not we consider them to be ignorant or stupid or wrongheaded," he wrote. (Doughty later went before a meeting of Black United Students to apologize for his remarks.)

But as the tumult at campuses in Berkeley and Madison shows, free speech isn't the easiest sell at colleges these days, especially when it comes to the messy business of race.

"I can understand the argument of free speech," says Mull. "But it's like I can say it's free speech if I want to get an article in The Stater saying 'I hate all white people.' Is that free speech? It is in its context, but rationally, it's free speech that causes tension that's not needed. To me, that's ignorantly claimed as free speech. People are going too far with this notion of free speech, as far as I'm concerned."

Of course, Kent State is a place where students are continually reminded of the consequences of exercising those rights, whether they want to be or not. "Kent State -- nationally, when you say that, people still think of the shootings," says Wetterich. "And those shootings were about freedom of speech, about students going out to exercise their right to free expression. This university has become a symbol of that."

Indeed, anybody who works at The Stater can't escape the legacy of May 4, 1970, when national guardsmen killed four students during a protest against the Vietnam War. The students were shot as they stood in the parking lot of Taylor Hall, the building that houses The Daily Kent Stater's offices.

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