SACRAMENTO ??? ???Good taste, the last and vilest of human superstitions, has succeeded in silencing us where all the rest have failed,??? wrote G.K. Chesterton. The early 20th century British writer was opining about religious debates ??? but political discussions often suffer the same fate, as Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist George Will learned recently.
Will is one of the nation???s best-known conservative writers, with a long career at the Washington Post. He???s usually not a bomb-thrower, but Scripps College in Claremont uninvited him to address its students because of his column about sexual assault on campus. Apparently, his opinion exceeded the boundaries of good taste.
???(Sexual assault) is too important to be trivialized in a political debate or wrapped into a celebrity controversy,??? wrote college President Lori Bettison-Varga, in a statement this week. ???For that reason, after Mr. Will authored a column questioning the validity of a specific sexual assault case that reflects similar experiences reported by Scripps students, we decided not to finalize the speaker agreement.???
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch dropped Will as a columnist and four Democratic senators condemned him, although the Washington Post has stood by the column as fair comment.
Will???s fans say he didn???t trivialize assault, although he did question the statistics the Obama administration uses ??? that one in five women is sexually assaulted in college and that only 12 percent of such assaults are reported. He calls those rates ???preposterous??? based on calculations from the government???s statistical tables.
I perused the table of ???alleged forcible sex offenses on campus reported to security authorities.??? The university with the highest rates is Penn State, where there were 56 alleged offenses in 2012 on a campus with almost 46,000 students, which is 1.2 per 1,000. If the 20-percent figure is right, that does lead to eye-popping numbers.
The above-mentioned data involve only reported allegations of the crime of rape. Will???s point ??? and one made by critics of California???s new law requiring affirmative consent throughout any sexual encounter on campus ??? is that federal, state and university officials are loosening the definition of sexual assault, and thus blurring some serious distinctions.
Will referred to a situation where a woman whom a man had been ???hooking up with for three months??? made assault allegations weeks after a sexual encounter. The two reportedly were sleeping in the same bed that night, but the woman said no and the man later proceeded any way. Of course, ???no??? should mean ???no??? ??? but Will saw this more a result of the modern hookup culture than evidence of a campus rape epidemic.
Agree or not, but Will???s point of view hardly amounts to hate speech. A university is well within its rights to host or not host any speaker, but many observers say Scripps??? action is bad form to at an institution designed to promote vigorous intellectual debates.
???I never think it???s a very good idea for colleges and universities to disinvite someone who was invited to speak,??? said William D. Cohan, author of ???The Price of Silence,??? which looks at the notorious 2006 Duke lacrosse team sex scandal and draws broader conclusions about sexual misconduct on campus.
???It???s not an imagined problem,??? he said in an interview Thursday. He disagrees with many of Will???s points, but believes there are a ???fair amount of ambiguities??? in many sexual-assault allegations. Federal pressure to do something about the problem, he believes, is leading universities to erode due process for the accused, who can face severe consequences if found guilty in these nonjudicial proceedings.
???Our judicial system has its flaws and sometimes it doesn???t work,??? he said. ???But it???s so much better than these kangaroo courts that exists at colleges and universities,??? which are not equipped to hold legal proceedings. If there???s a sexual assault, he believes it should be reported to police and then let district attorneys and judges handle the rest.
Cohan makes these points in a more tasteful manner than Will, who outraged some people with his reference to academia???s culture of victimization. But these points ??? about due process, the definitions of assault and the right policies to address the problem ??? definitely need an airing now more than ever.
Steven Greenhut is the California columnist for U-T San Diego. Write to him at email@example.com