Tag Archives: Free Speech

All Aboard the Censorship

Charlie Hebdo's post-attack cover, representing a saddened prophet Mohammed. Charlie Hebdo says "All is forgiven" above the depiction of Mohammed.
Charlie Hebdo’s post-attack cover, representing a crying prophet Mohammed holding a “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) solidarity poster. Charlie Hebdo says “All is forgiven” above the depiction of Mohammed.

The recent terror attack against Charlie Hebdo in Paris is yet another example of the fact that there are people who so strongly wish to impose their views on others that they will silence their opponents by any means necessary. By using terror and intimidation tactics, extremists have attempted to scare those who disagree with them into silence, overpowering even the strongest laws protecting free speech.

Perhaps the most troubling part of the Charlie Hebdo attack is its relevance to the modern American college, where the idea of “offense” as the ultimate danger runs deep. This problem prevents students who do not hold mainstream views from participating in discussion on controversial topics for fear of punishment by either their school or by their peer group.

Though students, faculty members, and guest speakers are generally free from violence of this sort on campus, there is no shortage of closed-minded people striving to cut off the voices of those with whom they disagree. This phenomenon is known as the “heckler’s veto,” wherein unpopular opinions are silenced by threats of harassment and bullying from those who oppose such views.

For example, Daniel Mael, a student at Brandeis University, recently found himself under attack after he republished a classmate’s controversial public tweets regarding the execution-style murder of two NYPD officers on a conservative website. Since publishing the article, Mael’s classmates have called for physical violence against him and for his expulsion from Brandeis. Additionally, Mael’s family members, including his parents and grandmother, have been threatened. Mael has been told by campus police that, upon his return to campus after winter break, he should expect his car to be keyed, his dorm room vandalized, and that other students may attempt acts of violence against him.

Similar acts have recently been perpetrated against Omar Mahmood, a student at the University of Michigan who wrote a satirical article about political correctness for the university’s conservative paper, The Michigan Review. After his article was published, Mahmood was fired from his job at Michigan’s institutional campus paper, The Michigan Daily, and his apartment was vandalized: students had thrown eggs at his door and left notes with messages such as “shut the fuck up” and “everyone hates you, you violent prick” as well as a picture of Satan.

In essence, students at Brandeis and Michigan, respectively, tried to suppress their schools’ stated commitment to free speech and punish Mael and Mahmood for their opinions in order to prevent them and others like them from saying or writing things they don’t approve of.

The heckler’s veto is frequently responsible for scaring controversial speakers away from colleges as well. In recent years, loud and disruptive protestors, including both students and faculty members, have prevented speakers invited to campus from effectively sharing their thoughts by interrupting and interfering with their speeches. This was the case at Brown University in 2013, when New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s lecture titled “Proactive Policing in America’s Biggest City,” was canceled half an hour in after protestors grew so loud that it became impossible for him to continue.

But even more troubling is the fact that many speakers withdrew from giving their lecture at all due to the threat of disruption. For example, Christine Lagarde, the first female leader of the IMF, canceled her commencement address at Smith College last year after a series of anti-IMF demonstrations created a hostile environment at the college in which Lagarde felt unwelcome. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was slated to give the commencement speech at Rutgers University last spring, canceled her lecture in response to student protests criticizing her role in the war in Iraq.

Last year also saw Robert J. Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California system, back out of his commencement speech at Haverford College after students and professors demonstrated against him. Even Haverford’s president, Daniel H. Weiss, was upset that Birgeneau would not be speaking at Haverford, stating, “we have lost an opportunity to recognize and hear from one of the most consequential leaders in American higher education. Though we may not always agree with those in positions of leadership, I believe that it is essential for us as members of an academic community to reaffirm our shared commitment to the respectful and mindful process by which we seek to learn through inquiry and intellectual engagement.”

As Weiss stated, it is extremely important to note that recognizing controversial public figures’ accomplishments or providing controversial lecturers with a platform to speak does not necessarily condone support for all of their opinions or actions. It benefits students to be exposed to a broad range of perspectives and the people who hold them. In the incidents involving Lagarde, Rice, and Birgeneau, the students chose to censor themselves from ideas they didn’t like, and created enough of a threat to those who held such views to prevent them from speaking their minds on campus.

The use of intimidation to suppress certain opinions has no place in a free society. Protesters should seek to promote an increase in discussion and understanding rather than seeking to prevent the other side from articulating its views. There can be no debate or intellectual curiosity if only “acceptable” arguments are allowed. We can only hope that, even in the face of intimidation tactics, people around the world will not back down in fear and will continue to express their opinions, however controversial, freely. Whether in Paris, Claremont, or anywhere else, free speech is the single most important element of a free society. In order to maintain this freedom, we must stand up for the right to freely express all speech, whether we agree with it or not.

Free to Speak Against Oppression?

There was recently a dispute at the University of California, Berkeley, similar to the George Will controversy at Scripps earlier this year, regarding the school’s choice of commencement speaker. Bill Maher, a well-known liberal comedian, was scheduled to speak at Berkeley’s December graduation. However, on his show “Real Time” a few weeks ago, Maher criticized the lack of freedom of speech and restricted rights for women and for people who are LGBTQ in many Muslim countries. Maher said, “These are liberal principles that liberals applaud for, but then when you say in the Muslim world, this is what’s lacking, then they get upset.” Bill Maher contends that liberals should be critical of those who do not afford free speech and human rights to all. The question he asked was, simply: why don’t liberals care about these issues in Muslim countries as much as they care about them in the United States?

Should Bill Maher be a persona non grata at UC Berkeley?
Should Bill Maher be a persona non grata at UC Berkeley?

In response, many students at UC Berkeley protested the university’s choice to have Maher speak at their graduation, and started a petition to disinvite him. According to CNN, the petition stated that “Maher is a blatant bigot and racist who has no respect for the values UC Berkeley students and administration stand for…we cannot invite an individual who himself perpetuates a dangerous learning environment.”

According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, a bigot is “a person who hates or refuses to accept the members of a particular group (such as a racial or religious group),” and a racist is “a person who believes that one race should control all others.” Maher’s comments were critical of the discriminatory actions taken by some Muslims in the name of their interpretation of Islam, not with the doctrine of Islam itself. He did not indicate in any way that he hated, refused to accept, or believed he should have control over Muslims. Maher’s words do not “perpetuate a dangerous learning environment”—he spoke out against those who are opposed to open-mindedness and freethinking. In other words, Maher spoke out against intolerance; therefore, his support of individual freedoms is the polar opposite of bigotry.

April 2013 Pew Poll, Page 93
See April 2013 Pew Research Center Poll, page 93
See April 2013 Pew Poll, Page 25
See April 2013 Pew Research Center Poll, page 25

Under radical Islamic governments, as Maher pointed out, women and the LGBTQ community have very few rights. A 2013 poll from the Pew Research Center confirms this, stating that, for example, 92% of Muslims in Iraq, 93% of Muslims in Tunisia, and 96% Muslims in Malaysia believe that “a wife is always obligated to obey her husband.” Furthermore, the Pew study found that a substantial number of Muslims believe homosexuality is morally wrong. Even in Indonesia and Malaysia, two moderate Muslim-majority countries according to Maher’s guest Nicolas Kristof (author of A Path Appears), the Pew survey found that 95% and 94% of Muslims, respectively, believe that homosexuality is morally wrong.

See April 2013 Pew Poll, page 46
See April 2013 Pew Research Center Poll, page 46
See April 2013 Pew Poll, page 54
See April 2013 Pew Research Center Poll, page 54

As Maher also stated, a large number of Muslims internationally believe that it is appropriate to kill anyone who leaves the Islamic faith. According to the Pew Research Center, many Muslims believe that Sharia law, also known as Islamic law, should be the official law of their country. Even in “moderate” Indonesia and Malaysia, 72% and 86% of Muslims believe, respectively, that Sharia law should be the official law of the land. Of the Muslims surveyed who support Sharia law, a large number believe that the death penalty is an appropriate punishment for those who convert from Islam, according to Pew. Many Sharia Muslims also believe in honor killings, and believe stoning is the appropriate punishment for adultery.

See April 2013 Pew Poll, Page 55
See April 2013 Pew Research Center Poll, page 55

It is important to note that members of the Muslim faith are not alone in holding some of these opinions—as one example, only 41% of American Protestant Christians believed that gay and lesbian relations are morally acceptable, according to a 2012 poll by Gallup. Bill Maher merely pointed out the double standard that is present when we condemn the Christians who hold these beliefs while simultaneously ignoring the very same injustices in Muslim countries. He did not claim that Islam is the cause of the beliefs; rather, he pointed out a correlation.

Islam is one of the world’s largest religions, with approximately 1.6 billion people practicing the faith. Like any large group of people, there is tremendous diversity among the world’s Muslim population, and there are many different interpretations among the group, some of which look quite different from the picture painted by the survey. According to Aiman Chaudhary (PO ’17), a practicing Muslim who grew up in Pakistan, the results of the survey are caused by the cultures of the various countries studied, not by Islam itself. “This largely has to do with the sociopolitical systems in place in the areas that this research has been conducted in. I think a lot of theology is often grounded in the culture and not so much scripture, in my own experience. I don’t think it’s a matter of religion anymore, I think it’s a matter of socio-cultural factors that you have been exposed to.”

Had the survey included American Muslims, the results would have looked very different, Chaudhary said. “I think American Muslims would certainly answer the questions differently—anyone who has been exposed to Western influences and the ideals of democracy and egalitarianism will answer these questions very differently. If you ask Muslims in America whether or not LGBTQ rights should be recognized, whether there should be marriage equality, or whether women should have the right to divorce and inheritance, I think a lot of these questions would come across as ridiculous to a lot of Muslims in America.”

It is important to make a distinction between the Muslim faith and the politics of Muslim countries, particularly in countries like America where the two have little in common. In its 2013 Religion and Public Life Project, Pew Research states, “In their attitudes toward modern society and their relations with people of other faiths, U.S. Muslims sometimes more closely resemble other Americans than they do Muslims around the world.” The Pew Research Center assessed the beliefs of Muslim Americans in its 2011 report, “Muslim Americans: No Signs of Growth in Alienation or Support for Extremism.” It found that 90% of American Muslims either completely or mostly agree that women should have the right to work outside the home compared to 97% of the US population overall. It also found that 39% of American Muslims accept homosexuality while 58% of the US population accepts it. In contrast, 45% of American Muslims believe homosexuality should be discouraged compared to 33% of the US population. Regarding support for suicide bombing and other violent acts against civilians, 81% of American Muslims believe these acts are never justified and 8% that they are often or sometimes justified. In comparison, only 19% of Palestinian Muslims and 38% of Egyptian Muslims feel that suicide bombing and other violence against civilians is never justified, while 68% of Palestinian Muslims and 28% of Egyptian Muslims feel it is often or sometimes justified.

Though Maher’s opinions are not Islamophobic, a person unfamiliar with Islam or the differences in the attitudes of American Muslims and Muslims in the rest of the world could generalize Maher’s statements to the entire the Muslim community, which is Islamophobia. This, I argue, is deeply troubling. According to Gallup, there are only about 1.4 million Muslims in America (0.45% of the US population), which means that many Americans may not personally know anyone who practices Islam. The lack of interaction with Muslims makes it difficult for Americans to see and understand the difference between radical and non-radical Islam. The best way to gain a better understanding of the problems pertaining to radical Islam and the resulting Islamophobia that follows is to have an open dialogue examining multiple perspectives. Neither Bill Maher’s nor the UC Berkeley students’ criticisms are unreasonable, and for that reason it is important that both perspectives be respectfully considered. Much like Islamophobia, radical Islam is harmful and discriminatory, and protesting Bill Maher for speaking out against this is contradictory.

Berkeley released a statement in response to the students’ protest stating: “The UC Berkeley administration cannot and will not accept this decision, which appears to have been based solely on Mr. Maher’s opinions and beliefs, which he conveyed through constitutionally protected speech. It should be noted that this decision does not constitute an endorsement of any of Mr. Maher’s prior statements: indeed, the administration’s position on Mr. Maher’s opinions and perspectives is irrelevant in this context, since we fully respect and support his right to express them.”

The Berkeley administration got it exactly right: Maher has the right to express his opinions, and the fact that Berkeley invited him to deliver the commencement speech does not mean that it agrees with him on this, or any other issue. Let the dialogue continue. As it does, let’s also ensure that college campuses educate students about Islam, and the manner in which it is practiced in different regions around the world, including the US. In this way, we might ensure that discussions about radical Islam do not propagate Islamophobia.

The Enemies of Voltaire: Campus Speech Codes

Claremont Mckenna College President Pamela Gann sent out an email April 19 regarding the confrontation between a member of the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) organization and a CMC faculty member. The email included a forwarded memo from Dean of Students Mary Spellman, and summarized the findings of the six-week investigation that the school had conducted. In those intervening six weeks, the incident and the subsequent investigation has been discussed at length in the student media and in the general student body. While the appropriateness and meaning of the professor’s words were scrutinized, along with the investigation’s alleged increased interest in SJP’s adherence to event protocol, the effectiveness and even the fundamental necessity of the school’s policy on demonstrations and free speech were not. These policies have produced a substantial amount of the frustration with these proceedings. Among these policies, both CMC’s policy on demonstrations and general events, as well as the Consortium’s “bias-related incident” policy are substantially responsible for the deafening lack of important discourse on the topic.

The policy on demonstrations has been addressed in other publications, but the “bias-related incident” policy, which has received less coverage, poses a similar if not more insidious threat to freedom of speech. This threat stems from the policy’s mere existence, as it can be used to silence and discredit opponents by mere insinuation. In this case, a Pitzer student, Najib Hamideh ’15, claimed that Dr. Yaron Raviv, a CMC associate professor, used racially charged language when addressing him. The longrunning investigation noted that Raviv apologized for the inappropriateness of his language, and also indicated that Raviv “stated that his intent in using the term ‘cockroach’ was to respond to the student by indicating that he thought of the student as someone who could not harm him.” Raviv also said that his harsh outburst was in response to Hamideh saying, “You’re a faculty here. I will hunt you down,” which Hamideh denied saying. In addition the report also noted that after the confrontation, Hamideh returned to the demonstration and attempted to identify the professor, when, “At least one witness reported that, while doing so, the student stated that he would ‘hunt down’ the faculty member. The student did not recall making the statement but did not deny doing so.” Such facts cast a new light on this incident, and add doubt to the prevailing version of the story. These new facts do change the discussion, but what was said and by whom should not have been at issue in this case. That these were the relevant questions covered by student media represents the failings of our current speech policy.

The main culprit is the “bias-related incident” filing, which should have been dismissed out of hand. The reason? Despite the policy’s vague name, the policy itself is quite specific. As stated in “[The Claremont Colleges Communication Protocol for Bias Related Incidents], the term “bias related incident” is limited to conduct that violates one or more of the Claremont colleges’ disciplinary codes and which is not protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution or by analogous provisions of state law. A hate crime is an especially severe form of bias related incident, and such crimes fall far beyond the bounds of constitutional protection.” (Emphasis added.) Even at its broadest, the accusations leveled against Raviv did not even come close to meeting this standard. Speech that is not protected by the First Amendment is, by nature, an extremely narrow category, and also generally falls under the purview of actual law and renders such a code superfluous. Discourtesies, no matter how inappropriate or offensive they are deemed to be, are a private matter and should not be the subject of an official inquiry. When such speech turns to actual unlawful harassment, then the appropriate law should be applied, but again, the speech alleged in this case fell well short of that standard. To justify having a code like the “bias-related incident” policy, its purpose would have to be unique and significant enough to override any concerns that the code’s existence could endanger free speech. The “bias-related incident” policy does not meet such a standard, and is too easily wielded as an instrument that summarily silences opponents and moves discussion out of the public sphere and behind the closed doors of the investigating committee.

While the policies on events and demonstrations are not as detrimental to the freedom of discourse as the “bias-related incident” policy, they can still negatively impact speech, and are worth examining. In this case, two aspects of the policy were involved in a consequential manner. The first was the requirement that the event pre-register with the Dean. While the school does not specifically require protests to register, it does require, as specified in CMC’s Guide to Student Life, “any events held in any College building (including the residence halls); [or] events held outside…” to be registered. By basically requiring all events in public spaces to register, the college has created a bureaucratic obstacle that makes protest more difficult and restricts speech because of it. Ideally, the college would create a special dispensation in the event policy for peaceful political protests, with the understanding that that status would be revoked if the gathering no longer met the description of “peaceful political protest.” In addition to modifying the event policy, the policy on demonstrations’ terminology could do with some adjustment.

The college faces an understandable dilemma in this case, as it must balance its interests of protecting the rights and safety of its students while simultaneously protecting and promoting an atmosphere of free and vibrant speech on campus. To accomplish this, the college endorses free speech, but prohibits “disruptive or nonpeaceful actions.” The Guide to Student Life also goes on to define these terms, and while non- peaceful action is largely self-explanatory, it should be noted that disruptive activity is defined as “a deliberate disruption or an impedance of access to regular activities of the College or of the College community, including those which restrict free movement on the campus.” This definition does not recognize that protests are by nature disruptive from time to time, as they need to disrupt daily activity to a degree to have an impact. The policy could benefit from modification that amends it to prohibit significant or substantive disruption, so as to allow protesters to make their point while also allowing students to complete their daily activities. On the other hand, the students involved in a protest have an obligation to ensure that their activity is a peaceful protest and not a substantial disruption and a hazard to their fellow students. In the SJP event, this did not occur, as the investigation noted, “The event participants complied with requests to adjust their event so as to not restrict access for a period of time, but at a certain point reorganized themselves in a manner that again restricted access.” The right of free speech should be strongly biased in favor of the speaker, but on private property, especially, there should be some reciprocity to allow for the balancing of speech and safety concerns.

This recent incident, contentious and emotionally charged, has also exposed a deeper and more systemic problem. The SJP incident revealed significant flaws with the policies that regulate speech on campus, flaws that hinder the free exchange of ideas and hurt the Consortium’s role as a bastion of open and free communication. These flaws either harm speech by allowing individuals to be silenced and summarily branded as a bigot on the basis of hearsay, or by obstructing speech through prior restraint, such as when events must be approved before they can happen. Both flaws are an anathema to free speech, and need to be corrected. That way, in the future, we do not have to shift our focus from the main issue to assess the validity of valid speech, but can instead engage in discussion and argument about the substantive issue, and enrich one another.

Beyond Dean-O-Mite: Chodosh on free speech & more

On December 7th, 2012, the Editors-in-Chief of student publications the Forum, the Claremont
Port Side, and the Claremont Independent had the opportunity to interview Claremont McKenna College’s new President-elect Hiram Chodosh.

The Claremont Independent had asked Chodosh some questions near and dear to our publication’s heart.

We asked Chodosh if he saw himself continuing CMC’s tradition of being a politically balanced campus. He replied that much of that tradition is ingrained in participating in the Athenaeum, saying that a number of campuses are not as politically balanced as they should be. Chodosh pointed out that a large part of education can take place among peers and that, if engaged, diversity of opinion is an advantage. The Athenaeum, Chodosh said, creates that forum for discourse and has a tremendous impact on campus engagement.

We also asked President-elect Chodosh about the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s recent change in CMC’s speech code rating from Red to Yellow—whether this change is something that he believes is important, and what steps he plans to take to change the free speech rating as it stands. Chodosh responded that while he was new to the particular context, he believes that it is “very important that there be a strong free speech regime on college campuses.” But, he noted, it is important that the freedom of one person’s speech cannot impede another’s. Chodosh emphasized the need to create a learning environment through the promotion of free speech. Creating a learning moment from offensive speech, entails getting together to talk about the controversies in a way that can produce a deeper understanding of the issues at hand. “It is important that each of us learn our way through these controversies.”

It’s a promising start for our President-elect, but we can only wait to see whether he will properly address the issues of political balance and free speech during his term.