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Northwestern's Paper Tiger

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By Michael Miner

Passive resistance may have driven the British out of India, but it won't get the daily paper off your doorstep. The dailies are so grim about hanging on to subscribers that merely refusing to pay your bill will get you nowhere. The paper will keep on coming until you pick up the phone and demand a halt.

But what if you never ordered the paper in the first place? Then the Tribune and Sun-Times might keep their distance, but not the circulars that litter our lobbies and front yards. They're dumped at your door by First Amendment absolutists whose operative motto is "screw you." In the same spirit of constitutional purity Northwestern University students distribute the weekly Chronicle.

Last Thursday night Chronicle staffers galloped through Northwestern's biggest dorm, the Foster-Walker complex, delivering their latest. Bearing stacks of papers that shouted "Jack Kemp Speaks Out" across page one, they raced past petitions posted and signed by residents disavowing the Chronicle, even past a note asking "Please do not deliver the North-western Chronicle to this address," and tossed a copy at every single door. One vigorous resident darted out, scooped up her Chronicle, and had it in a trash bin ten seconds after it landed in her hallway. Another student chased after the Chronicle delegation waving a copy and pleading, "Conserve paper. Give it to someone else."

Editor Ronald Witteles looked at her blankly.

"Conserve paper. Give it to someone else."

Witteles wouldn't take it back. Finally the student turned on her heels, went back into her room, and slammed the door.

"Well, that was friendly," Witteles said.

The Freedom Forum reports that at last count 756 journalists from around the world have lost their lives in the line of duty since 1986. The Foster-Walker expedition was not untinged by danger. "Do we anticipate trouble or not?" senior editor Kevin Frost, president of Northwest-ern's Conservative Council, asked technical manager Luke Preczewski just before the group set out.

"I don't know," said Preczewski. "There was last week."

A week earlier what Witteles described as "a large incident" took place in the same dorm--which is where Witteles happens to live. "Approximately ten students organized a scheme to steal the newspapers from Foster-Walker. Several of them were caught by myself, and one was caught by a resident assistant. One of the individuals who was caught stealing newspapers also physically threatened me. He said that if he saw me distributing the newspaper to his door, then I'd better pick the newspaper up and run the other way before anything happens to me."

Campus police were notified.

These vigilantes could only have been emboldened by a crucial campus ruling the night before. By a 40-25 vote the Associated Student Government (ASG) senate had approved legislation transparently crafted to bridle the Chronicle. Any periodical "published three times a year or more" and distributed in hallways must be removed from those hallways by their staffs "within twenty-four hours of their distribution." More significant, "Any written request of all residents of a room not to receive specific periodicals must be honored."

The bill was introduced by Greg Cordaro, a senator from Foster-Walker.

Witteles took the position--obviously one not shared by the resident who confronted him the next night--that the legislation could safely be ignored until written requests were actually received. By last Thursday, he told me, the Chronicle had gotten about 65--"which, considering that there are something like 700 students in the dorm, isn't particularly impressive." His present position is that the legislation can go on being ignored because it violates higher campus authority and the First Amendment.

In February 1995 the University Hearing and Appeals Board ruled against two dorms that had hoped to limit distribution of the Chronicle to the stacks left in their lobbies. Foster-Walker maintained that door-to-door distribution constituted solicitation. The other dorm maintained that as a self-governing body it had the right to keep the Chronicle out of the hallways if it chose to. Law professor Daniel Polsby carried the day for the Chronicle, arguing that under the constitutional principles Northwest-ern chooses to govern itself by, a dorm has no more right to keep a newspaper from circulating freely than a city hall does.

This year Cordaro took another tack. If dorm governments couldn't restrict distribution, then perhaps individual residents could. Furthermore, the hearing board last year had recommended "that any future legislation by dorm governments address the issue of cleaning up said publications in a reasonable period of time by those responsible for their distribution." Surely this directive justified the clause ordering the Chronicle to clean up after itself within 24 hours.

When the Chronicle dropped papers at every single door last week and didn't return the next day to pick them up, Cordaro acted. He filed a complaint with the executive committee of the ASG, setting off a review that could cost the Chronicle its office on campus and its status as an authorized student activity. If it comes to that the Chronicle will certainly appeal, and eventually the Hearing and Appeals Board might find itself wrestling by analogy with the tricky constitutional question of whether an American citizen has the right to cancel a subscription.

What is it about the Chronicle that students find so resistible? The Jack Kemp issue offered an editorial tribute to Al Salvi as a "conservative's conservative: pro-life, pro-family, pro-free market." Big deal. There was the usual column by brainy conservative Thomas Sowell, who brings a healthy dose of contrarianism to freshmen sure it's their destiny to change the world. And then there was business manager Conrad Cheung's lecture to the "ethnic groups here on campus" that he said blame racism for their own failings and "are merely behaving like spoiled brats."

Well, something's rubbing people the wrong way.

"It's sort of like junk mail," said Chris Mahoney, the Foster-Walker resident with the "please do not deliver" sign on his door. "The first time you get it it's not too annoying. But then you get it over and over again, and you ask them to stop sending it and they send it. It gets more and more frustrating. I look at the cover, and nine times out of ten it doesn't interest me."

Does it offend you ideologically? I asked him. "No. In fact, what I really like is somebody who'll challenge my beliefs," Mahoney said. "It doesn't excite me by challenging my beliefs. It just frustrates me by being pompous."

"It's pretty annoying to have all the crap in the building," said Kristy Noonan, a student senator from the wing of Foster-Walker opposite Cordaro's. "I talked to my cleaning lady about it, and she picks it up because she doesn't like all the crap in the hallways. She picks it up because she knows nobody reads it."

Why doesn't anybody?

"It's bad!" Noonan said. "It's a bad paper. It's not even the ideology. It's boring. They don't write about anything interesting. The writers are bad writers, and they play it up like the campus hates them for ideological reasons. It's not that at all. It's just a boring paper. It's gotten to where people go out of their way not to read it."

Shanthi Ramakrishna sprang from her room as the Chronicle couriers disappeared down the hall, their trail marked by the papers at every door. "It's a mess our poor housekeeper has to pick up, and it's not right!" she insisted. "She's a wonderful person, and I really feel bad." Ramakrishna did some fast figuring and announced that her housekeeper had 25 bathrooms to keep clean just on that floor alone. The Chronicle was one mess too many.

"What I tried to stress in the debate was that this isn't about what's in the paper. It's how they distribute it," said Cordaro. "They're trying to turn this into a witch-hunt, and it's not that. They're trying to draw attention to the student government's actions and away from their actions. That's where the attention should stay focused--on what they're doing. What they're basically doing is ignoring what to many people, if not most people, seems like a reasonable request and common courtesy."

What seems like a plea for common courtesy, says Witteles, is blatant obfuscation. "The main reason we deliver door-to-door in campus dorms is that there are some people on campus who dislike the newspaper because of its editorial stances. It happens to be conservative. They will give people a hard time both if they work on the paper and if they are reading the paper. It's people obviously on the left of the political spectrum who feel it is their duty to regulate what people are reading and what information they have access to."

Witteles has noticed that the level of animosity from this hostile element rises and falls with the Chronicle's own behavior. "For example, last year when the Asian-American Advisory Board had a hunger strike to try to get an Asian-American studies department, we at the newspaper very much disagreed with the tactic of a hunger strike. We thought it was trying to bully the administration and was demeaning to more legitimate hunger strikes of the past. So we, along with another student group, organized a feast right nearby where we gave away free food. We were originally going to grill hamburgers and have pizza, but the grill was shut down because we didn't have the fire permit or whatever. So we stuck with the pizza. But we gave pizza away to any people passing by."

How close were you to the hunger strikers? I asked.

"Maybe all of 50 feet." Sure enough, "a small number of people who were outraged" by the Chronicle's sniff-our-oregano-sucker approach to philosophical disagreement made their feelings clear. "Of course," Witteles said, "usually it's things that appear in the newspaper that get people mad."

Although the Chronicle distributes door-to-door to boost circulation figures, the more important reason, as Witteles tells it, is to bring the good word to closet conservatives. These are the residents who fear ostracism--or even a hearty pummeling--if they're spotted picking up the Chronicle in the lobby. The reason for delivering to every door whether the student behind it wants the Chronicle or not, Witteles explained, is to provide maximum cover to the students who do.

Having been briefed on the climate of fear gripping Foster-Walker, I spent several minutes in the dorm's lobby watching residents relate to a stack of Chronicles that had been placed there. To the extent they paid any attention to it at all, they glanced at, lifted, riffled through, and walked off with it, and in one case grabbed a fistful of it to wrap a greasy box of rib tips. Their conduct hinted much more strongly at idle curiosity than at a roiling undercurrent of ideological terrorism.

But Margo Brown, assistant to the vice president for student affairs, told me there's something to what Witteles claims. "It offends a lot of people. There are some students who do not want views other than the ones they hold to be discussed, I suppose. Apparently there is a lot of peer pressure, that if you pick it up you're indicating you agree with it. I think that's sad that students feel so intimidated."

I asked Brown if she had anecdotal evidence of this intimidation. She didn't.

"Look, campuses are pretty left-wing places," Daniel Polsby, the Chronicle's constitutional champion, told me. "To be in the middle of the spectrum of political opinion at Northwestern you have to be a Trotskyite, I think, and there's a lot of dissing of Republicanism that goes on."

The Chronicle is a victim of this dissing, Polsby believes. "To the extent I see copies of it, what it looks like is sort of the college Republican crowd with an attitude. It's undergraduate stuff. It's not terribly well done, in my opinion. I wish it were better done. But I can assure you of this--there isn't any plausible claim of obscenity, of hate speech, anything like that."

The Chronicle's campus adviser, professor emeritus Robert Schluter, also weighed in. "Distributing newspapers may lead to litter, but that's part of the price of a free press.

"The Chronicle is very mild," he went on ruefully. "They could be a lot more abrasive, a lot more incisive. I'm happy when they become more incisive. The most controversial thing I can think of they've done is they gave book-review attention to The Bell Curve. That was offensive to some people. It's ideologically a very mild paper."

Aside from Dan Quayle's epochal visit to Northwestern in February, the Chronicle hasn't had much to write about lately--until it got to rail against the student senate for sinking to "a previously unheard of level of arrogance and political correctness" when it passed "Orwellian legislation" sponsored by "Reichminister" Greg Cordaro on behalf of the "campus Thought Police." The Chronicle suggested "brownshirts" as attire for the senate's next meeting.

"This has been a really dull year, frankly," senior editor Kevin Frost conceded in the lobby of Foster-Walker, moments before last week's race through its corridors and stairwells. Recent front-page Chronicle banners announced "NU Changes Day, Time and Place of Commencement," "Lakefill Causes Controversy and Doubles Size of Campus," and "Beta House Converts to Coed."

The Chronicle belongs to a nationwide association of 52 conservative "alternative" papers known as the Collegiate Network, whose founders and overseers have included William Buckley, Irving Kristol, and William Bennett. It's an article of faith within the network that these papers face persecution on campus that's both harsh and hypocritical. "You can imagine what might happen if a minority newspaper or the paper of a left-wing group was censored by a conservative group," said Chris Long, vice president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which oversees the network. But censorship is less enraging when the free thinkers being muzzled were last heard from on the history of campus landfill.

Witteles's interview with Jack Kemp in the last issue was matched in length and perspicacity by his dissection of the NBA playoffs. A lack of enthusiasm for the exclusive access the Chronicle offers to Witteles's views on sports--he liked the Bulls over the Heat in three--may play as big a role as PC repugnance in breeding littered hallways. As Shanthi Ramakrishna was saying, "Some of the stuff--top-ten lists on the back page--that's not news to me. I prefer to read the Daily Northwestern. I prefer to read the Tribune. I prefer to read the New York Times and Wall Street Journal."

For whatever reasons, dozens of papers just lie there in the halls until the housekeepers come along and tidy up. Complex factors aggravate this First Amendment showdown; one is the well-known psychological infirmity that makes it impossible for college students themselves to pick up a newspaper they don't want and simply toss it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.

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