Free speech, hidden cameras don’t mix

USC lecturer Darry Sragow dismissed California Republicans as “really stupid,” “racist” and “angry old white people” before his political science class last fall. Those remarks wouldn’t be news — except that student Tyler Talgo secretly videotaped Sragow, and the bias-watchdog group Campus Reform posted 15 minutes of excerpts from the 2 1/2-hour class, which the Drudge Report picked up. That turned Sragow into a chew toy for cable news pundits.

As a Republican, I found his remarks offensive and inaccurate. Angry, old and white — those words apply to Sragow, too. I’ve known him for years as a Democratic operative, an attorney and a friend, when he’s not teaching this one course, designed to give students real-world perspective. No doubt Sragow would tell his clients that anything they say can be taped and used against them. So it’s ironic that he is caught up in the same trap that ensnared Mitt Romney when the candidate made his infamous 47 percent gaffe.

Sragow won’t talk on the record, but he released a statement, in which he said he stands by his remarks but regrets his “choice of words.”

As offended as I am by those words, I also am offended that Talgo secretly videotaped the class. Yes, Sragow was speaking in a public classroom, but he was not addressing the world. Secret tapings can only have a chilling effect on the classroom. As USC provost Elizabeth Garrett noted in a statement, “one of the most important principles of an academic community has been that academic inquiry and discussion be free from censorship or undue outside control.”

Most of my best professors were highly opinionated — two favorites were unapologetic socialists — and I would hate to see the fear of ridicule by cable news gag lively academics.

Alas, ever since James O’Keefe aired his infamous faux-pimp videos to ridicule ACORN by tricking low-level staffers into saying stupid things, some young conservatives have fallen for the romance of the self-styled journalist who, festering with grievances, strikes back by exposing liberal stupidity with the help of hidden recording devices and edited videotape.

Talgo eschewed O’Keefe’s bluster when we spoke over the phone Monday. I trust that when he is older, he will understand that it is wrong to take injudicious comments made for limited consumption and spread them across the Internet. Talgo told me he thought that if he had told Sragow he was taping the class, Sragow would have changed his tune, so he hid his camera.

Why didn’t Talgo confront Sragow instead? The sophomore told me he worked hard to get into USC. The tuition isn’t cheap. He said he felt slandered being called a stupid racist and “deserved better.”

Talgo also said he was afraid that if he confronted Sragow, Sragow might retaliate by giving him a real-world poor grade. As it is, he aced the class.

Fellow conservative and Sragow course alumna Emily Schrader did not appreciate Sragow’s GOP-bashing and agrees that academia is hostile to conservatives. Liberal professors have been known to grade conservatives unfairly, she told me, but she stood up to Sragow and found that he welcomed debate.

“Why didn’t (Talgo) say anything?” asked Schrader. “This was his opportunity to be a conservative activist.” As she wrote to the Daily Trojan, “we don’t need to silence the opinions of Liberal professors, we need to debate and engage.”

Debra J. Saunders is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Her email address is dsaunders@sfchronicle.com

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