Op-eds

Jackson ’16: Free speech isn’t without consequence

By
Op-Ed Contributor
Thursday, November 5, 2015

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen campus debate unfurl over whether a couple of recent Herald op-eds are a matter of freedom of speech. This discussion, stemming from The Herald’s offending many students of color by publishing two controversial op-eds in early October, pits a slippery-slope argument in favor of free speech against protecting readers from emotional harm that can result when language belittles aspects of their identities.

Free speech is a tricky issue because there is a fine line between promoting First Amendment rights and being blatantly offensive. While all students can practice their right to free speech, they should also practice common sense. Freedom of speech does not guarantee a platform for every view, nor does it protect those views or the speaker from criticism.

We as a campus should attempt to define what exactly freedom of speech entails, the extent to which this constitutional provision applies to a private publication and the limits of this right. On our campus, we tout open intellectual discourse and academic freedom. These are wonderful ideals and certainly ones that foster growth. We, as a student body, however, should require that the ideas represented in this exchange are responsibly chosen.

There is a difference between using scientific evidence to make an argument and using pseudoscience to mask what are inherently political claims. Defending the latter on a free speech basis detracts from the racist, sexist and classist sentiments these arguments convey. We should not ignore or deny the fact that these comments are harmful to the mental health of the marginalized people whom they offend.

The purpose of a college newspaper differs from that of a mainstream publication. A good college newspaper will elect to present all sides of an argument and provide a platform for all voices on campus. At the same time, a college paper must consider the reality that some of its readers experience marginalization because of their racial or gender identity every day.

Seeing articles that make these individuals feel further isolated and then seeing them defended on the basis of free speech can be extremely detrimental. When we as a campus could be having valuable discussions about race, we are instead reverting to what are essentially “colorblind” arguments around free speech. For many minority students, this is incredibly frustrating, especially because the ability to advocate free speech is not independent of privilege.

In early October, a collection of black students and student organizations sent a letter to The Herald in response to the two initial op-eds. This letter, which is echoed by most student groups of color that sent simultaneous letters, expresses a sense of isolation many students of color feel from the major newspaper on this campus.

In the letter, students put it simply: “As the oldest and most prominent publication on this campus, we hold the BDH accountable as an organization for their practices and how they approach controversial issues. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, whether or not students disagree; however, as an organization with privilege, power and a platform, the BDH is, and will be, held to a higher standard than any one individual.”

Ignoring the realities marginalized students face in favor of a free speech argument isn’t hard to do, but it isn’t without emotional consequence. Initial feelings of hurt for many minority students after the publication of the two op-eds have been compounded by the framing of the fallout as an issue of free speech.

Many minority students have chosen to disengage from the paper entirely. While I personally advocate discussion over silence, the choice of these students to separate themselves from the paper should make those who advocate complete freedom of speech pause. I believe most students of color are all for free speech, but freedom of speech does not give one a pass to infringe upon the well-being and dignity of other individuals. Hopefully those who want to argue for complete freedom of speech around issues of race will really consider the opinions and day-to-day experiences of the students their arguments will impact most, and hopefully students of color who feel isolated from the freedom of speech discussion will participate in the debate and allow their voices to be heard.

Feel free to reach out to Sarah Jackson ’16 at sarah_jackson@brown.edu.

12 Comments

  1. Oh for Christ’s sake, give it a rest already.

  2. “We as a campus should attempt to define what exactly freedom of speech entails, the extent to which this constitutional provision applies to a private publication and the limits of this right.”

    Who are these enlightened deciders who define free speech? I think your speech is deeply offensive and I don’t think you fully appreciate what you’re saying. After the Charlie Hebdo attack there was a refrain of “speech has consequences.” Offensive speech is the price we pay for the marketplace of ideas.

    No one was silenced by Maier. Most of us think what she wrote was absurd and objectionable. There has been a tremendous outcry about. This has been debated to death, but the Enlightened Few aren’t interested in debate. I think you’re being intellectually dishonest.

    I’ll leave you with this piece from Wesleyan. Is this author offensive? If so, what should the consequences be?
    wesleyanargus.com/2015/09/14/of-race-and-sex/

  3. Chris Robotham says:

    You’re attempting to re write the history of this conflict. When Maier’s op eds (not articles) were published, no one defended her on “free speech” grounds. Some people thought that the cataloging of her every digital move in the form of a Google folder was a tad excessive, but there was no defense of her on the grounds of free speech, since her free speech rights weren’t being challenged.. Yet. This changed the moment that the various advocacy groups blamed the BDH for having ever published the pieces (a reasonable claim in the case of “white privilege of cows”, where factual accuracy/writing quality were an issue, not so much in “Columbian exchange day”) and the BDH, like many prominent institutions at Brown have done before it, acted rashly in trying to quell criticism from those who were calling it racist, and in so doing, actually created a serious threat to freedom of political expression on Browns campus. The threats to her free speech did not exist until the pieces were pulled and the BDH released that apology (which was more than a popularity plea than anything else), and thereby set the precedent that something was unworthy of being said merely by its capacity to offend. This would simply be a lazy/cowardly action if it weren’t for the fact that the BDH was never prepared to do such a thing upon the (rightful) publishing of the highly offensive “ROTC: Return of the Criminals”. Thus, the reason that people were up in arms about “free speech” was that the BDH decided that it should pull certain pieces or prevent future ones from being published simply because it offended certain people, but refuses to do the same when it offends others. To do that is a very precedent-setting move by the most powerful institution of its kind on campus that does legitimately threaten the rights of certain people to express themselves. Your narrative that the controversy over free speech emerged merely as a result of the criticism of the content of her op eds is entirely incorrect and creates the false impression that “free speech” advocates were merely disguised defenders of her and her views looking to lessen others’ criticisms. That was never the case.

    You also suggest that a college newspaper has different responsibilities than a real-world one because, as you claim, college students experience forces of oppression or marginalization. Do you really think that these things are limited to college students at elite universities? That the pinnacle of oppression world wide is on college campuses – where people with claims to being oppressed are being given something of a veto over editorial content going through the school newspaper? Are you joking? Granted, you could also be suggesting with that statement that people outside college campuses do actually experience oppression but that newspapers in the “real world” have no responsibility to curtail what they publish based on who is offended by it, in which case I’m curious why you make such a distinction.

    Either way, this is a deliberately misleading piece that rewrites the history of this conflict so as to peddle the absurd notion that there is mutual exclusivity between the BDH’s right to publish something that offends people and the “safety” of non white students.

  4. ShadrachSmith says:

    Where you wind up on the issue of free speech depends in large part on where you start out. I start with the belief that freedom of political speech is the primary purpose of the 1st amendment, because freedom of political speech is the lifeblood of a successful democracy.

    Silencing political opinions is the tool of tyranny, which is evil. This is simple stuff.

  5. Man with Axe says:

    “Free speech is a tricky issue because there is a fine line between promoting First Amendment rights and being blatantly offensive.”

    There is no such line. Every one of us has the right to be blatantly offensive. That is the central idea of the first amendment, namely, to protect speech from people like you who would prohibit it because you don’t like it.

    “We should not ignore or deny the fact that these comments are harmful to the mental health of the marginalized people whom they offend.”

    I deny it. The comments are not harmful to anyone’s mental health. In fact, it is giving in to one’s own cowardice in the face of uncomfortable speech that is injurious to one’s mental health. Have courage and confront the world as it is, instead of asking for big brother to protect you from those who disagree with you.

    And who are these so-called marginalized people? No one ever demonstrates that they are marginalized even though they are students at one of the world’s premier universities, and are writing articles in the newspaper. This is one of the most intellectually lazy tropes I’ve ever seen, but it shows up in every progressive writing.

    “I believe most students of color are all for free speech, but freedom of speech does not give one a pass to infringe upon the well-being and dignity of other individuals.”

    Your dignity and well-being don’t depend on my speech or my opinions. I could write the most offensively racist and sexist and homophobic and trans-phobic and classist article and your dignity and well-being would not be affected in the slightest, unless, of course, you want it to be.

  6. Free speech is a tricky issue because there is a fine line between promoting First Amendment rights and being blatantly offensive.

    Sorry to burst your pseudo-intellectual bubble, but you don’t actually have the right to not be offended.

    We, as a student body, however, should require that the ideas represented in this exchange are responsibly chosen.

    How benevolent/Orwellian of you. Who watches the watchers?

    We should not ignore or deny the fact that these comments are harmful to the mental health of the marginalized people whom they offend.

    Not the writer/speaker’s problem. If you can’t handle someone else’s opinion without therapy that’s your malfunction.

    The purpose of a college newspaper differs from that of a mainstream publication.

    Apparently its purpose is to protect precious little snowflakes such as yourself from anything you don’t agree with.

    A good college newspaper will elect to present all sides of an argument and provide a platform for all voices on campus.

    Which is not at all what you just said.

    At the same time, a college paper must consider the reality that some of its readers experience marginalization because of their racial or gender identity every day.

    Again, not their problem. The people running the BDH are either journalists who abide by the corresponding ethics and expectations of their field, or they don’t deserve the privilege of operating such an important, historical publication.

    Many minority students have chosen to disengage from the paper entirely.

    Much like changing the channel, that is their choice. It’s not an argument for restricting speech so that people of color can feel safe reading the newspaper.

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