You might ask, when did Ivy League athletes become such mouth-breathers? Columbia University is the latest to confront this question, thanks to the noble sons on its wrestling team, who got caught on GroupMe exposing the dark corners of their shrunken minds. But a larger question is, what should campus authorities do with these young swine who parade their rapey, racist sentiments in group chats? The answer: Use them as a teaching tool, a classroom exhibit on what privacy is and isn’t.
The school’s wrestlers gave up their claim to privacy when they threw out their chests emblazed with the word “Columbia” and became public representatives of the university. Because they did, their subsequent actions slimed their entire student body. They now join the distinguished ranks of Harvard’s men’s soccer players as perfect examples of entitled club-thuggery. Screenshots of their exchanges leaked to a student-run Columbia blog called Bwog.com show them complaining about “feminist bitches” and c-words, “nig” protestors in Ferguson, Mo., and Africans with AIDS, as well as rooting for rape, and boasting “Dude no lie we would run the town of any state school.” Congratulations to the admissions board. We can dispense with the wearying myth that the Ivies practice some smarter, purer form of sport.
Columbia has suspended the team “until we have a full understanding of the facts on which to base the official response to this disturbing matter.” In the meantime, the usual two sides have raced to their opposite corners: the privacy defenders who protest another incursion by the thought-police and tell those offended to sit back and take it, and the “safety”-crusaders who equate words with real violence, and would nullify the First Amendment on account of feelings. A petition with almost 1,000 signatures is calling for the expulsion of team members as “violent individuals.”
Which is the truer, and more correct, position? And what should the consequences be? In trying to tease that out, it’s actually helpful, clarifying even, to remember that these guys are members of a varsity sports team. It makes it easier to think about what their individual rights are, and what their behavior means to the rights of others.
Tempting as it might be, expulsion is the wrong and disproportionate answer. Throwing team members out of school for expressing vile sentiments impacts too many people, because it makes vulnerable anyone who might espouse incendiary views. It demands that every single person on campus conform to a prescribed language, turns speech into a potential disciplinary “offense,” and makes campus authorities into censors. Does a university that has just launched a “First Amendment Institute” really want to say, “You can’t espouse unsafe views”? As Charles C.W. Cooke of the National Review has observed, “there are no objective means by which we might judge what is ‘safe’ to say and what is not . . . everybody has a heckler’s veto simply by virtue of their capacity to feel.”
But what Columbia University can and should say is, “We don’t want anyone who espouses such views representing us.” That’s a distinction that makes sense.
The wrestlers surrendered their right to say anything they wanted when they put on their branded athletic gear, funded by university fees and gifts, and walked out into public arenas as supposed examples of Columbia’s virtues. They exchanged privacy for privilege, a stage, free training, and the assumptions they hoped people would make about their character and values as a result of the fact that they wore Columbia on their shirts. Especially at hiring time. Then they got together in their insular little mob and abused all of those advantages with their I’m-so-elite-rules-of-civility-don’t-apply-to-me arrogance.
The claim that their text messaging should be protected by privacy is a fast-twitch response — and it falls flat as soon as the lights are turned on and the roaches scurry. If you hold thoughts or ideas that you don’t want to be seen widely, then don’t type them. And don’t put them out on an electronic device. Did they learn nothing from Hillary Clinton? Who doesn’t know that? Only, apparently, Columbia and Harvard boys steeped in their insular dumbfoolery.
So spare us any concerned conversations about how their texts became public. They wrote them and pressed “send.” Now they can deal with the real-world problems of unwanted publicity and try to explain to their prospective employers why they’re not risky hires who would abuse their computer access and get the company sued for harassment.
Looking at it that way, the appropriate consequences should be clear. The guilty wrestlers should be forbidden to represent anyone beyond themselves. They shouldn’t be allowed to plunge an entire campus into a dicey disciplinary action that uses their foul mouths to jeopardize the free speech of all.
They should simply and flatly be kicked off a team that exists by virtue of the financial support of others, and out of any other organizations that might be funded, too. They should be rendered individuals, who — now that they have been outed, humiliated and disgraced by their own words — have to continue to walk around that campus exposed for who they really are.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.