Columbia is in national news again, this time not for giving a bigot a place to speak, but for acts of bigotry committed on campus. The first in a recent string of incidents was white supremacist graffiti in a bathroom at the School of International and Public Affairs; the second and the one receiving most attention was a noose hung on an African American professor's door; and the latest, according to a message from university president Lee Bollinger, is that "one of the bathrooms in Lewisohn Hall was sullied with an anti-Semitic smear." Perhaps because of his background as a First Amendment scholar (he continues to teach a class on Freedom of Speech and Press), Bollinger seems at pains to downplay the graffiti incidents: "When words are the offender, as in this incident, I am reluctant to draw attention to them and will exercise restraint in doing so going forward. I do not want to broadcast, in any way, the message they attempt to send or empower those behind them." In contrast, the noose is being treated almost like a burning cross, although liberals in law schools and courts tend to disfavor the automatic criminalization of any form of speech. Compare Thomas's and Scalia's opinions in Virginia v. Black that the burden of proving a lack of intent to intimidate should be on the defendant, with Souter's opinion joined by Ginsburg and Kennedy that cross-burning itself ought not be a crime when trespass and intimidation already are illegal, and O'Connor's and Stevens's insistence that prosecutors prove intent to intimidate as an element of the crime.
Despite news reports to the contrary -- "Police ruled out any possibility that the target of the attack had hung the rope herself. 'Our victim is a victim," Deputy Inspector Michael Osgood, commander of the hate crimes unit, said at a news conference Wednesday' -- several conservatives already are guessing that the professor must have done it. They link it to George Washington University students who put up posters on campus that headlined, "HATE MUSLIMS? SO DO WE!!!" advertised a real event on Islamo-Fascism Awareness, and included only in fine print "Brought to you by Students for Conservativo-Fascism Awareness." (I am not sure what is the element of racism against African Americans that the Columbia professor would be satirizing with a noose on her own door, but the connections made by Malkin and her ilk frequently are beyond me.)
In any case, what interested me about Bollinger's statement is the distinction he's drawing. It concludes, "In response to questions students have raised, I also want to reassure you that we have utmost confidence in our Public Safety officials and in the NYPD. Not only do they have well established communications protocols in place when there is an immediate threat of harm; they distinguish crimes that threaten our physical safety from incidents like the one that occurred today." What exactly does that mean? Obviously there's a difference between a completed crime against our physical safety (muggings, etc.), an attempted crime against same, and a threat of such a crime, but all seem to be in themselves "crimes that threaten our physical safety." However, even some expression that is not explicitly a threat -- that does not actually say And we're coming back to get you -- is treated as a crime. According to the Columbia Spectator, "New York State law says that incidents in which swastikas are used as graffiti will be considered investigated as aggravated harassment in the first degree, a more severe punishment than occurs for other forms of defacement." As far as I know, there is no such specific statute regarding nooses or the non-figurative graffiti directed against Muslims and African Americans. And yet the noose seems far more of a threat to physical safety than the graffiti, being targeted at a specific person and itself a method of killing particularly identified with lynchings against African Americans (the low-tech, real kind).