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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

EDITORIAL: Amherst’s Double Standard

Several weeks ago at UMass Amherst, pictures from last semester got circulated of student government officials drunk in a student center office.

But that wasn’t what provoked the ire of some in the campus community. It was the dry-erase board caricature of the student government president, dressed in Ku Klux Klan garb and holding a cross. The picture was obviously meant to parody those who called the student president a racist, since he had previously opposed setting aside a certain number of student government seats for an ALANA (African, Latino/a, Asian/ Pacific Islander, and Native American) group.

A racial diversity forum was held immediately, where the nine student senators were labeled the “KKK Nine,” and university officials promised swift punishment, but stopped short of threatening them with expulsion. Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Michael Gargano noted, “in this world everyone has the right to free speech.” The crowd booed in response.

The worst the nine students are guilty of is drinking in a university office. What UMass Amherst is guilty of is double standards when it comes to free speech.

“According to the strange logic of UMass, it is perfectly acceptable for administrators, faculty, and student leaders to falsely accuse other students of racism and falsely accuse them of sympathy for one of America’s most despicable private organizations, but it is somehow ‘harassment’ for a student to draw a mocking caricature of a Klan member on a dry-erase board,” a letter from David French, the president of FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) to UMass officials points out. “This hypocrisy and selective outrage cannot be defended either in the court of public opinion or in a court of law.”

Earlier this year, when Amherst graduate student Rene Gonzalez wrote an op-ed column for the Daily Collegian, the Amherst student newspaper, that lambasted Army Ranger and former NFL star Pat Tillman who died in Afghanistan, as “idiot,” who “got what was coming to him” and was “probably acting out his nationalist-patriotic fantasies forged in years of exposure to Clint Eastwood and Rambo movies.”

The column generated a nation-wide controversy (and many, many nasty phone calls to the Mass Media, which people mistook for the Collegian). UMass President Jack Wilson took Gonzalez to task for penning it, while recognizing his freedom of speech. No such statement has come from UMass Amherst regarding the so-called “KKK Nine” incident.

But there seems to be one good thing to come out of the hysteria, and that is a “blue ribbon” 22-member Commission on Racial Diversity, established by Amherst Chancellor John Lombardi last week (Though it seems one on freedom of speech wouldn’t hurt college campuses much, either). It is obvious from other incidents in past semesters that the racial climate needs to be looked at.

Recommendations will be made, once the comission meets in November, with a report expected in February. According to the Collegian, the committee is making itself available to meet with groups and individual students who wish to propose ideas, and actively soliciting input and e-mails. It even has a website: www.umass.edu/CampusDiversity.

This is a far cry from what the UMass trustee task force did, when formed last year in order to respond to the stepping down of a popular Latino dean and look into a chilly racial climate at UMass Boston. The campus community has roundly blasted the task force’s recently released report as hastily put together and a mischaracterization of their views and the campus climate.

This commission would do well not to repeat the mistakes of the trustee task force, and involve the campus community, hold an open dialogue, and issue a comprehensive report (Longer, hopefully, than three pages). And the Amherst campus would do well to be wary of double standards on free speech, and closely examine incidents for what they are.