Speaking of Rights : Former Liberal Stands Up for Conservative Opinions at Colleges
A Studio City conservative activist has organized a nationwide network of mostly right-wing and libertarian lawyers to defend fraternities and campus conservatives when they are accused of being sexist, racist or homophobic.
David Horowitz--who made a name for himself as a leftist radical who switched to the right--has put together a battalion of about 20 lawyers, with new recruits signing on. They are the latest--and arguably best organized--entrants in the long-simmering battle over what its detractors call political correctness on college campuses.
The group is only a few months old, but it has about a dozen cases and has chalked up some significant successes. Last month, it persuaded Cal State Northridge to reinstate a fraternity, Zeta Beta Tau, that had been suspended for circulating a party flyer that Latinos called offensive.
Last week, the group’s support of a fraternity at Occidental College forced the university to drop disciplinary action against a fraternity there and rewrite its sexual harassment code.
“I didn’t expect it to be this easy,” Horowitz said.
The New York-bred son of members of the American Communist Party, Horowitz made a splash in the 1950s and early ‘60s as an intellectual leader and writer in the New Left. With Peter Collier, who is still Horowitz’s writing partner and is also now a conservative, he edited Ramparts magazine in the 1960s and joined forces with the Black Panthers Party in the 1970s.
His world was jolted and his turn to the right began, he says now, when a close friend was murdered, and he came to believe that the Black Panthers did it.
Now 54, Horowitz runs a $700,000-a-year conservative foundation, the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, which is funded by right-leaning organizations such as the Olin Foundation, Bradley Foundation and Scaife Trusts.
Late last year, he turned his attention to college campuses.
With San Diego attorney John Howard, who previously had contacted him about his publications and political beliefs, he began to reach out to conservative lawyers who would take such cases on a pro bono or discounted basis. He also looked for students and dubbed the effort the Individual Rights Project.
He ran the following advertisement in Heterodoxy, a magazine Horowitz edits with Collier and has distributed on college campuses, to journalists and to people whose names appear on the mailing lists of conservative organizations:
If you are a student, or a student organization, or a fraternity/sorority in the state of California and are being harassed by a spineless college administrator or by campus thought police or by politically correct fascist running dogs and wish free legal counsel . . . Contact John Howard.
The idea is to fight for the rights of these students to harbor and express any idea they might have--including those that others consider offensive. A larger goal is to use the legal system to whittle away at sexual harassment codes and hate speech rules that some campuses have implemented.
“Part of it is tactical,” meant to bolster conservatism on campuses in the face of liberal or leftist faculties and rules, Horowitz said.
A third aim, more peculiar to Horowitz, perhaps, is personal. Like many of his fellow “red diaper babies"--a counterculture term for the children of Communists--Horowitz delights in needling the left.
Heterodoxy, launched last April, is as much about making fun of liberals and leftists as promoting conservative ideas. Horowitz says he is active on college campuses because, to borrow a phrase from the conservative 1950s, they are hotbeds of radicalism.
“I chose the university because the left is dominant there,” he said in a recent interview.
The efforts seem to be working.
In the case of Cal State Northridge, Jeff Berns, the attorney representing the embattled ZBT fraternity, said he was ready to give up when he got a call from Howard, offering to help. ZBT had been suspended for circulating a flyer that made reference to “Lupe,” a fictitious character in a bawdy song described as a “Mexican whore.”
“They contacted me and explained to me that they’re civil libertarians and how the 1st Amendment plays into things like this,” said Berns, a personal injury attorney who had little experience in speech issues. “They pointed me in the right direction, and any time I had a question, they were there for me.”
Howard told him about a little-known California law that guarantees students on college campuses the same free speech rights that they would have in society. He urged Berns to sue the university, demanding reinstatement and claiming that the fraternity’s freedom of speech had been violated.
A couple of letters and meetings later, Cal State Northridge capitulated, persuaded that a legal battle would be fruitless. The fraternity was reinstated April 1.
Detractors describe the project as nothing more than an effort to use fraternity members and other students for political ends under the guise of protecting free speech.
“I think it’s really unfortunate,” said Nalsey Tinberg, faculty president at Occidental College and one of the professors sued by Howard. “This person approached the students, and all avenues in the college for solving these kinds of problems had not been utilized.”
Tactics such as suing professors individually, Tinberg said, are heavy-handed and unfair, particularly at a time when universities do not have extra money to fight lawsuits.
Rudy Acuna, a Chicano studies professor at Cal State Northridge who was involved in the controversy over ZBT, said he was “shocked and saddened” to learn that the Individual Rights Project was involved in the lawsuit.
“Do they want a society where you can put burning crosses in the middle of campuses, where you can put swastikas in the middle of campuses, where you can put Mexicans as banditos in the middle of campus?” Acuna asked. “There have to be some standards.”
As word of the Individual Rights Project has spread, it has heard from--and are acting as advocates for--among others:
* Students at Cal State Chico who spoofed the movie “Malcolm X"--and the clothing and accessories it spawned--by wearing hats with slash marks running through the letter X.
* A conservative student at Marietta College in Ohio who called a homosexual student leader “deviant” in a campus newspaper.
* A student at UC San Diego who claims a professor failed him because he disagreed with her feminist approach to history.
At Occidental, Howard handled all the legal work himself. In that case, Alpha Tau Omega was threatened with disciplinary action for distributing a poem last fall that describes the rape of a woman, in apparent violation of the school’s sexual harassment policy.
Howard contacted the fraternity’s president, Alex Lebrija, and dictated a stern letter to university officials over the phone.
The university gave in. But when a group of professors and students attempted to file another complaint against Alpha Tau Omega, Howard got tough.
He sued not only the college, but professors, administrators and the student who made the original complaint.
In a settlement signed last week, Occidental agreed to drop all disciplinary action against the fraternity and its members, and rewrite its sexual harassment code so that incidents such as the distribution of a lewd poem would not be covered.
As part of the settlement, the fraternity agreed to acknowledge that the disciplinary action was prompted, in part, by two nude runs through campus.
Lebrija said he does not care about Howard’s politics--he is just grateful for the help.
“I haven’t really thought much about the political aspect,” Lebrija said. “I’m not affected by that at all.”