Free speech debates lack nuance, empathy

This piece was published as an editorial in The Tufts Daily in November 2015, when I was serving as the newspaper’s Editor in Chief.

It has been over two weeks since Erika Christakis sent a now-infamous email to the residents of Yale’s Silliman College, over a week since Timothy Wolfe left his post as president of the University of Missouri and nearly a week since Assistant Vice President and Dean of Students at Claremont McKenna College Mary Spellman resigned from her position. The editorial board has not yet weighed in on the conversations that have emerged around these events, but as members of our community join the action being taken nationwide to fight racism on college campuses, it is time for us to do so.

On Nov. 16, an incredibly well-researched article was published on PostScript’s website describing a hate crime committed in 1975 by white Delta Upsilon brothers who were not held accountable for their actions. This is the legacy all of us have to deal with at Tufts; it is part of the legacy that makes Tufts and universities like it, in the words of those organizing on our campus as #TheThreePercent, “microcosms of the essential American condition: White supremacy.” That such a crime has been buried in the record for so long illustrates the kind of amnesia that allows for discussions whose interlocutors are “assuming that individual actions” of the sort that have given rise to protests on campuses across the United States “can be divorced from their broader context, or from the larger and more troubling legacy of racial discrimination in America,” as Gillian B. White writes in the Atlantic.

“But they can’t,” she continues. Many of the articles that have emerged in the wake of the last few weeks’ events miss this entirely and grossly misunderstand who is entitled to free speech, who is subject to censorship and, indeed, what counts as an “idea” and what counts as an attack.

The 2013 protests at Brown University in reaction to then-New York Police Department Commissioner Ray Kelly — like the protests that were organized in opposition to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s invitation to Tufts’ campus around the same time — brought up similar debates about free speech on college campuses. In this way, they’re directly related to the conversations currently making waves in the press, and constitute an instructive example of the kinds of discourse that have sought to use the First Amendment to excuse discrimination and violence.

Brown University President Christina Paxson responded to the protests with a statement that called them “an affront both to civil democratic society and to the University’s core values of dialogue and the free exchange of views,” according to the Brown Daily Herald. Of course, as Paxson’s statement and many other entries in this broader conversation are right to point out, it is important to be exposed to new ideas that challenge one’s view of the world — intellectual life depends on it. But there is a massive difference between an abstract idea and a lived experience or identity, and the former is too often confused with the latter. Paxson’s argument only holds water if we consider discourses and practices that degrade and dehumanize as “views” worth “exchanging.” But they aren’t.

“I welcome and thrive off the legitimate intellectual discourse that the Providence community, and this includes my university, has afforded me,” then-student Doreen St. Felix wrote in The Guardian in an explanation of the protests’ motivations. “But stop-and-frisk is not just an idea. Racial profiling is not an intellectual puzzle to be spread across the table. Stop-and-frisk is a politically sanctioned system of police brutality.”

Racist symbols and language, culturally reductive Halloween costumes and the tokenization of individuals that results from positing an exclusionary university “mold” — while absolutely not the same kind or degree of violence as racial profiling and police brutality — are enabled and structured by the same systemic racism. If we treat these acts like speech, all they are saying is that students of color do not deserve respect — and in so doing, they are speaking on behalf of the status quo, not the minority opinion.

It is our view that free speech is an invaluable feature of civil society because of its capacity to challenge such a status quo, not because of its capacity to reinforce it. “The freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered,” Jelani Cobb wrote in the New Yorker. His insight addresses the ahistorical arguments that paradoxically defend acts of free expression that constantly silence and invalidate not only the ideas, but the very existences of people of color.

The idea that manifestations of the discrimination that is coded into much of our socialization could offer anything new or be intellectually stimulating for anyone, and especially for those who have to deal with its violence daily, is truly baffling. The idea that a woman of color could be represented as a “bully” in a misguided but incredibly popular piece in the Atlantic for expressing her anger at a man holding a position of power at an institution of immense privilege is equally absurd. When students of color at Mizzou were finally listened to, they received death threats and little compassion from their faculty. That, not the demand to be heard, is the work of brutal censorship; protests declaring that enough is enough are free speech, not its antithesis.

As members of the free press, these declarations and demands that address power ought to be what we pay closest attention to. But when we get it wrong, we do more harm than good. So while many media outlets are confused and outraged by the protesters and faculty who prevented journalists from documenting the campsite at University of Missouri following Wolfe’s resignation, we are not. We understand that the “twisted insincere narratives” members of Concerned Student 1950 sought to avoid have very real histories in the mainstream media’s coverage of challenges to oppression.

“These student protesters were not a government entity stonewalling access to public information or a public official hiding from media questions,” journalist Terrell Jermaine Starr wrote in the Washington Post. “They were young people trying to create a safe space from not only the racism they encounter on campus, but the insensitivity they encounter in the news media.”

The Daily is a project analogous to those mainstream outlets, and as such, we have been guilty of producing such narratives and hostile spaces.

We strive to be better. We are committed to making our office and our pages into spaces where intellectual stimulation means challenging dominant assumptions about the world rather than reproducing them and where discomfort comes with growth rather than degradation. We aim to be a resource to which everyone can submit news tips, op-eds and columns without having to worry that their narratives will be distorted and overtaken by those “ideas” that persist and do harm.

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