Campus panels, talks tackle issues associated with freedom of speech, expression

By Boris Zyumbyulev || Contributing Writer

Photo courtesy of oslofreedomforum.com

Last week, Franklin & Marshall College had two important talks on the freedom of expression. The first one was on Monday, February 28, in which a panel of faculty, administration, and students gave brief statements on the topic and followed up with a Q&A. The second one was Thursday, March 2, when the controversial Danish journalist Flemming Rose came in to talk about the importance of protecting the freedom of speech.

Two weeks prior to the first discussion, President Porterfield send an e-mail informing the student body about the revised statement of freedom of expression that F&M endorses. The language indicated that the Board of Trustees, who have backed the statement, and the faculty, protect Freedom of Speech in all of its forms, as long as it is legal and does not endanger the security and safety of students.

The said statement was at the core of the discussion this Monday. The panelists were faculty members Katherine McClellan and Matthew Hoffman, both tenured professors at F&M. Bill Hancock, Jael Lewis, and Sarah Hafiz were students representatives, who also voiced their views before the Q&A. Hancock is an English major and Writing Center tutor, Lewis is the president of the Black Student Union, and Hafiz is the president of the Muslim Students Association. Dean Hazlett spoke as the Dean of the College and Pierce Buller was there as General Counsel to F&M in order to address legal concerns. Before the panelists spoke, Dr. Porterfield reiterated the importance of the issued statements. He said it is up to the community to protect expression as a core value and right to all. In Porterfield’s view, students and faculty must talk about uncomfortable ideas, to take risks and challenge traditional conventions. Even so, the president underlined the limits to the freedom of speech: it should not harass, slander, or push beyond legal boundaries. Ending with a glorification of free society as one of dignity and value, Dr. Porterfield opened the field for the panelists.

The students were first to speak on the topic. Sarah Hafiz stressed the need to protect freedom of speech, even if we have to deal with and discuss controversial topics. Jael Lewis took a more careful approach by reminding the audience and the panelists that the dynamics of power in a society are crucial to understanding freedom of speech. Following Lewis’s final statement that “we need to be careful of what we say,” Bill Hancock brought attention to the surfacing of trolls. By censoring them, according to him, it is easy to make them martyrs.

After the student’s brief two minute statements, the faculty members picked up the discussion. Matthew Hoffman, Chair of Judaic Studies Program and the faculty member who brought the University of Chicago’s statement from a few months ago to F&M, believes that freedom of speech is about the marginalized and their protection. Katherine McClelland, Chair of Sociology, focused on the importance freedom of speech has for the learning environment. There needs to be an inclusive, diverse community, where people know each other, if we want productivity, creativity, and academics to flourish. Finally, Pierce Buller resounded the legal status of the freedom of speech. It is part of our human rights, but it is a flexible concept, that is malleable according to the time period. Thus, the law provides only “a guide” to how F&M should treat its own policies.

With that the discussion shifted to a Q&A. The questions circled around some specific phrases from the statement, how mental health can be affected by free speech, the rules surrounding Title-9 cases and confidentiality issues, and the biggest topic being protestation. With several mentions of the Guerrilla Girls and their activity on campus, their posters, and critiques towards the administration, students wanted to know why some of it was effective and some of it was not. The faculty, the Dean (despite leaving the panel early), and the President defended both the administration and the protesters against the concerns over students’ rights. In their view, peaceful protestation on campus is not only okay, but encouraged, especially by Dr. Porterfield. It is not in the administration’s interest to silence the student body, because ultimately that would lead to even more problems. At the end, even if not issues were resolved, people seemed to be on the same page: freedom of speech and expression is important and we should protect it. The gray areas, of which there are many, are to be determined individually and depending on the circumstances.

In contrast, the talk on Thursday with Flemming Rose in Star Auditorium was much more emotionally driven and passionate. Flemming Rose is a Danish journalist who published satirical cartoons of Muslims as a way to bring attention to content-creators who willingly self-censored in fear of backlashes and violence. Since then he has become a renowned person, who defends freedom of speech, a “Freedom of Speech, with no but’s.” Since the 2005 controversy surround the comic strips, he has published several books, only one in English called the Tyranny of Silence, and has lived under constant threat against his life. He brought three bodyguards to his speech at Franklin & Marshall.

In front of the Stahr Auditorium, located in Stager Hall, people from different backgrounds and organizations convened to protest Rose’s speech. They had posters, many of which touched on issues of privilege, power, and majority vs. minority. Several people held “Check your privilege at the door” posters and googled pictures of the 2005 comics on their phones. Other messages included: “Don’t use Muslims as scapegoats to achieve fame” and “Don’t use my prophet as a tool of gaining #FAME.”

The auditorium was packed with people, even before the protesters came in. After Rose was introduced by professor Matthew Hoffman, the protesters entered in a line, holding hands and circled around the seats. Throughout his talk they remained standing.

After a few comments were exchanged between Rose and the concerned community, the Danish journalists talked for about 40 minutes, before opening the floor for a Q&A and a discussion. He touched upon the declining status of free speech in the world in the last 9 years, even in Europe. One of the more interesting points he made is the correlation between a revolutionary breakthrough and the almost immediate suppression of freedom of speech. The example he gave were the Gutenberg press, the radio, the TV, and currently the Internet–and how despite the possibilities they open to the masses, states and organizations in power quickly learn who to suppress them. This is happening now according to Rose.

He continued with the two fundamental explanations of the freedom of speech. It is either an instrument for a higher goal like democracy, feminism, power, or communism; an instrument defined by the “I am in favor of free speech, but…”

On the other hand, and the approach Rose prefers, is the idea that in and of itself, free speech is an individual right, virtue, and value. It gives power to the individual to self-determine, and to exercise his free will. Rose then shifted towards discussing the attack on this intrinsic value. That is, hate speech laws, laws against fake news, the criminalization of glorification of terror, and laws against different interpretation of history. In his mind, the mere criminalization of free speech, as long as it does not incite violence directly, is essentially a very dangerous and terrifying thing. If it is the state that decides what is hate speech, things can easily get out of control and history can easily prove that.

His book, The Tyranny of Silence, explores these same concepts: the recent attacks on free speech, the reasons behind the attacks, and possible remedies. For Rose, global cosmopolitanism is one of the key factors that brings discord among people. Through urbanization, immigration, and technology, “we are all either physical or digital neighbors.” The proximity between people from different backgrounds, belief systems, and opinion inevitably leads to disagreement, controversy, and “pain” as Rose puts it.

However, the Danish journalist stressed that he is not trying to reverse globalization. It is not about reducing diversity, or preaching nativism. To Rose, it is important to navigate between our differences and unite behind our similarities and universal humanity. He proposes two concepts. One road towards understanding between cultures is the “you accept my taboo, I accept yours,” which supports reciprocity and consistency — for example, someone saying, “If I accept the fact that you worship Jesus Christ, you must accept the fact I am a Holocaust denier.” Rose shies away from this concept as it can be dangerous. Rather, Rose prefers minimal restrictions of free speech that ensures a peaceful society, that works with a “more realistic” definition of tolerance. According to him, tolerance is dealing with disagreement in a peaceful way–it allows you to live whilst also be able to hate and dislike certain ideas and people– however, it does not allow you to incite violence and affect adversely someone’s life. In a nutshell, he stands behind the “why can’t I hate you” question, whilst speaking against the violence.

The moment he ended with his comment on tolerance, a large amount of people raised their hands and the discussion began. The conversation began first with an exploration of the comics he published 12 years ago and the fact that he “used Muslims as a tool for popularity.” He refuted that statement by claiming it was never to generalize all who are under Islam’s umbrella. In fact, the comic strips were aimed at journalists and public figures who willingly censor themselves. With that comment, the protestors palpably calmed down. At first, most responses to him were emotional and aimed at the controversy, but then the discussion moved to free speech itself and how to navigate diversity. People brought up power dynamics, protection of marginalized community from the majority’s free speech, and some identity politics, but not to the extent as to halt discussion.

The exchanges heated up occasionally, but never erupted in full scale yelling. Argumentation was somewhat weak at times from both sides, the language barrier proved to be an issue once or twice, but overall important discussions occurred. People voiced their concerns, Rose answered for himself, and people drew their own conclusions after the talk had ended. Opinions differed and clashed within the auditorium, but since this was the whole point, it was a successful event.

First-year Boris Zyumbyulev is a contributing writer. His email is bzyumbyu@fandm.edu.

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