Opinion

JOAN VENNOCHI

BU professor teaches a lesson in offensive speech

Universities — just like newspaper opinion pages — should be destinations that make you think.

Which is why Boston University should stand by Saida Grundy, a new and controversial assistant professor of sociology and African-American studies. As for those who express disagreement with Grundy’s race-based views in their own racially-offensive way, they should have that right — as long as “offensive” does not cross over to “threatening.”

In the latest Grundy-related episode, BU is investigating flyers that were put up around campus calling for Grundy to be fired because of views she expressed via social media about race and ethnicity.

Advertisement

As first reported by Boston Magazine, a group called National Youth Front distributed the flyers and launched a “#FIREGRUNDY” campaign on its website, with the message, “Black privilege means not being fired after saying that white college males are a problem population.” The post goes on to say, ”It seems like every day anti-white hate is being spewed from some hate-filled professor without consequence.”

Get Today in Opinion in your inbox:
Globe Opinion's must-reads, delivered to you every Sunday-Friday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

BU spokesman Colin Riley told Boston Magazine that the school’s police are investigating the posters and will prosecute if they make an arrest. Asked the grounds, he e-mailed to me, “that would be determined by the investigation.”

The Grundy tweets that created a furor include one calling white college males the “problem population” in America; one asking, “can we just call st patrick’s day the white people’s kwanzaa that it is?”; and one declaring that “Every MLK week i commit myself to not spending a dime in white-owned businesses, and every year I find it nearly impossible.”

She has every right to those opinions, but let’s be honest. If she were a white professor tweeting such thoughts about black college men, there would be little rush to defend her in the name of academic freedom or any other cause.

National Youth Front describes itself as “a conservative organization dedicated to the preservation of all white people.” In a recent article, the Southern Poverty Law Center calls New Youth Front’s members “the new racists on campus.” It’s connected to the American Freedom Party, which, according to its website, opposes “immigrant invasion” and “cultural Marxism.”

Advertisement

Concerning Grundy’s critics, civil liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate said that, as a general rule, if a university allows some “favored outside groups” to post on bulletin boards, it should make the same boards available to “disfavored outside groups.”

“This derives from what the law calls the principle of ‘viewpoint neutrality,’ ” said Silverglate. “Without this principle, academic institutions would be free to give speaking platforms only to friendly and favored points of view, not to critics. This violates the First Amendment on public campuses, and violates academic freedom on private campuses.”

One anti-Grundy poster was placed on a bulletin board that also contained a flyer with the message “ISupportSaida.” Others were placed on lamp posts and in campus buildings, including the sociology department where Grundy will be teaching.

The message from the National Youth Front and American Freedom Party is offensive and hateful. But is it threatening? That, of course, is the judgment call. On the whole, as my colleague Kevin Cullen wrote about a racially insensitive opinion piece authored by conservative activist Steven Nikitas, it’s better to know such sentiment is out there and confront it — whether it comes from the right or left.

As Grundy wrote in a letter published in BU’s Daily Free Press, “In the past year alone, the inconvenient matter of race has made itself an unavoidable topic of discussion in our country. These issues are uncomfortable for all of us, and, yet, the events we now witness regularly in our nation tell us that we can no longer circumvent the problems of difference with strategies of silence.”

Advertisement

Where better to address those differences than at an institution of higher learning?

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.

Related:

Steven Pinker: Why free speech is fundamental

Flemming Rose: We cannot insist on living by the principle of ‘do not offend’

Controversy trails new professor to BU

Kevin Cullen: Free speech has a price — letting jerks have their say