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There have been a number of headlining slips of tongue in recent months, from Brian Williams’ mismemory turned into a flat-out lie to Justine Sacco’s AIDS joke morphed into a career-ending punch line. And then there have been more deliberate utterances made with the intent to remove the speech of others.

Fox News recently picked up an article by a Herald columnist and kept it on the front burner for 10 days straight. I watched as a friend and colleague entered the limelight, pushed by a fellow peer, with his words and screen glaring up at him, burning down on him pinpoint. News anchors referred to him as a “leftist activist wannabe” and as a “stupid jerk.”

And then there’s Phi Kappa Psi — a fraternity accused of and found responsible for “creating an environment that facilitated sexual misconduct,” according to University findings. Its public service announcement can be read in Tuesday’s Providence Journal. It’s an instance of airing dirty laundry, and in the machismo, jersey-waving, post-victory sort of way. 

Institutions with a certain degree of power and respectability — news organizations, fraternities — often act with force. But by targeting and drowning out the individual voice, these conglomerates are using strategic chastisement for the purpose of self-aggrandizement. And while the two aforementioned events are worlds apart, both Fox’s actions and Phi Psi’s address ultimately serve the same purpose: to scare and deter.

When national television anchors repeatedly insult and berate an undergraduate columnist, they first target an individual; they then target other voices. Fox failed to address particular arguments that the columnist made and, rather, attempted to shame those who support an ideology into submission and subservience. They attempted to deter their viewership from engaging with these thoughts, and they attempted to deter the author and society as a whole from voicing this opinion.

When a fraternity is penalized by a school for creating an unhealthy and unsafe environment, and when that fraternity then writes to the city paper and addresses “members of the Brown community” to clarify its situation, it causes unnecessary harm to itself, to discourse and to the actual victims of sexual assault. Phi Psi’s letter seems geared not toward the community but toward the University and those that accused the fraternity of wrongdoing. In this regard, the fraternity used its position of power and authority — male power and authority — to vocalize an “I told you so” on an inappropriate media platform and created an environment more hostile, more uncomfortable and more stifling for future victims to come forward and report instances of sexual misconduct. They used a city paper to target specific people and created an additional deterrent and more fear as a result of their “clarification.”

Free speech is important; our nation depends upon its protection. We watch with horror as cartoonists are slain. We cringe when liberty is siphoned and journalists are forced to testify by law. Speech is important. Freedom of speech is more important. And I, like others, am indebted to those alive and dead who forged and preserved the right to talk in turn. It’s the talking out of turn that begins to look frightening. It’s the abuse of a soapbox to silence the voices of those less powerful.

Many will cringe at this analysis, confuse it and bark mad. Some will deny that a news outlet can harass an individual or a society — “we just report the news” — and others will side with the fraternity, assert that the University’s proceedings were targeted and hail Phi Psi’s vindication.

But it’s concerning when a news organization begins to conflate its role in society and disregards the comfortable niche of satire. And it’s equally concerning when a fraternity that has a presence on many campuses across the country continues to shame those already experiencing pain, hurt and trauma instead of taking its vindication in stride. 

When Fox reached out to the columnist on multiple occasions, contacting him directly, contacting University administrators and contacting peers — all to no avail — perhaps it wanted to remind him that his freedom of speech wasn’t free or were looking to recruit more “wannabes” and “jerks” for one of its shows. When Phi Psi addressed the Providence community as a whole, perhaps it was genuinely looking to clear its name — redundant given the University’s email about the new findings a day prior — and let us know that it was the real victim in this kerfuffle. Or perhaps it was doing what we all know but don’t verbalize: sometimes we too can terrorize.

Evan Sweren ’15 is a Herald opinions editor.



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