jelanicobb_252_jrw New Yorker writer and UConn Professor Jelani Cobb is the main event at Claiming Williams right now, speaking on “The Half Life of Freedom: Race and Justice in America Today.” EphBlog is less interested in Cobb’s thoughts on Race/Justice/America (he seems a standard issue leftist) and more interested in his thoughts on what sorts of discussions should be allowed at places like Williams. Is Cobb an example of the “new censors” who would limit the discussion/debate that is at the heart of a Williams education? Consider Cobb’s New Yorker article on the racially-tinged controversies roiling college campuses. Key paragraph:

Last year, at the University of Connecticut, where I teach, white fraternity members harassed and purportedly shouted epithets at members of a black sorority; the incident generated an afterlife of hostility on Internet forums, where black female students were derided and ridiculed. Eight months ago, fraternity members at the University of Oklahoma were filmed singing an ode to lynching.

These are not abstractions. And this is where the arguments about the freedom of speech become most tone deaf. The freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered. The enlightenment principles that undergird free speech also prescribed that the natural limits of one’s liberty lie at the precise point at which it begins to impose upon the liberty of another.

What, precisely, is Cobb’s policy prescription? Should the University of Connecticut punish students for engaging in ridicule? Should the University of Oklahoma expel students who sing the wrong sorts of songs? It sure seems — and maybe someone could ask him during the Q&A today — that Cobb wants exactly these sorts of punishments meted out to politically incorrect students. And he wants this done even though both UConn and Oklahoma are state institutions!

I would like to believe that Cobb’s views are extremist, that no faculty member at Williams could possibly be in favor of state-punishment of non-violent speech, that all Ephs of goodwill would agree with the analysis offered by Professor Eugene Volokh in the Washington Post with regard to the Oklahoma case:

[R]acist speech is constitutionally protected, just as is expression of other contemptible ideas; and universities may not discipline students based on their speech. That has been the unanimous view of courts that have considered campus speech codes and other campus speech restrictions — see here for some citations. The same, of course, is true for fraternity speech, racist or otherwise

But maybe I am being naive. Jelani Cobb wants to censor students at UConn and Oklahoma. Presumably, he would like to punish faculty who engage in similar speech. He does not think that the Constitution can or should protect those with whom he disagrees. He wants to censor me today. Maybe tomorrow he will want to censor you?

Any EphBlog readers at the talk should ask him about this and/or tell us about the speech.

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