Free Speech? Not if You Hurt Their Feelings.

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, May 24, 2007

Mia Lazarus put her chips and juice down on the counter and prepared to pay. But in the midst of the lunchtime rush, the cashier's eyes wandered to Lazarus's T-shirt, which expressed a political message that proved to be overwhelming for the clerk.

One glance at the words "Baltimore Zionist District" on Lazarus's "I Stand for Israel" T-shirt, and the cashier at the Maryland Food Collective, a crunchy grocery and sandwich shop in the student union on the University of Maryland's College Park campus, blurted: "Your shirt offends me. I won't ring you up." The cashier told Lazarus she could go to the back of the store to find another clerk.

In this odd political climate, when many people find their worth and identity in the fine art of taking offense, this confrontation at a campus lunch spot has blossomed into a seminar on constitutional rights. The loser is free speech.

Lazarus got her food; another cashier at the independent, worker-owned co-op was willing to take the student's money. But the incident led to the creation of a Facebook site on which some students called for a boycott of the food co-op; an hours-long, teary meeting at which Lazarus and her friends hashed things out with the collective; and then an agreement.

The collective, which rents space from the university, announced last week that it would serve any customer who was not physically or verbally abusive, but that any worker who was offended by a customer's politics could discreetly slip away and find another clerk to serve the patron.

The collective's policy statement said it "respects the right of an individual worker or volunteer to remove themselves from the work environment and to choose not to act as an agent of the store."

In the law, this is known as discrimination. But a good many college students don't see it that way. Amazingly, virtually everyone involved on both sides of this incident is perfectly pleased with the new policy.

Lazarus, a junior from Baltimore, says she was angry and hurt when she was turned away, but she soon decided that the co-op's policy was a reasonable way to prevent anyone from being hurt. "If someone's offended," she said, "I'd rather have a conversation with them about it, but if they feel uncomfortable and just want to take themselves out of the situation, I really don't mind. It's not like the store's not serving me; it's just the individual. It's no different from when a cashier slips away to go to the bathroom."

"The arrangement we worked out, while not ideal, is a reasonable accommodation," said Avi Mayer, president of the university's Pro-Israel Terrapin Alliance, who joined the meeting with the collective. "I would not want to force anyone to act against their own political beliefs."

The cashier who refused to serve Lazarus will not talk about the incident because "she would be misrepresented," one co-op worker told me. The workers who would talk to me -- most would not because "the collective speaks collectively," as one member put it -- said no one should have to have contact with people whose views they find hurtful.

"I would have rung her up," said Kiki -- "no last name, please, we're getting too many ugly phone calls" -- "and nobody was refused service. She paid for her food less than a minute after it happened. But it's hard to gauge. Is it intolerant to say that America's actions in Iraq are intolerant?"

The students don't want to come off as haters. When Lazarus and others active in Maryland's Jewish student groups met with the collective, the visitors baked a vegan chocolate cake and brought it as a peace offering. In a letter to the cashier who turned her away, Lazarus was as non-confrontational as could be: "I got the impression that your action at the register was a very 'in the moment,' emotional reaction. Nonetheless, the way you expressed your feelings was not the most constructive."

For all their desire to just get along -- Lazarus even volunteered at the co-op this month -- the students seem blind to the core rationale for freedom of speech, the idea that a marketplace of ideas is only worthwhile when it is truly, wholly unfettered.

Gretchen Metzelaars, director of Maryland's student union, met with the collective "trying to help them come to the conclusion that they must abide by the university's human rights code," which prohibits discrimination based on age, sex, race and, yes, political beliefs.

Despite hours of conversation, "it became apparent that they were not coming to the right conclusion," Metzelaars said. "So we delivered it to them." This week, she told the collective that if it discriminates again, it will have 60 days to vacate the premises.

"They can't see that this is discrimination," she told me. "They're more committed to their righteousness than they are to the rights of other people. The fact is, you have to serve everyone."

The collective finally seemed to get that idea, Metzelaars said. But then, "we finished our discussion, and they said, okay, but if someone came in wearing a swastika, we wouldn't serve them. And I said, 'Whoa! That's the problem right there: Everyone gets to say what they believe, and you have to serve them.' "

The students I spoke to do not see this. I asked several how their justification for letting a clerk walk away from a customer was any different from the rationale that propped up the "separate but equal" schools of this country's segregation era.

My analogy flopped. The idea that you simply may not treat someone differently because of their political beliefs was lost on these students.

"Separate but equal wasn't equal," Lazarus said. "In this case, I'm getting the same service, but it's just from a different cashier."

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