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Friday, March 24, 2017




Task force engages talk on campus free speech


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Wednesday’s discussion forum on free speech and free expression proved heated and confrontational, with community members of different ideologies going head to head.

Last Monday, University President Ronald Liebowitz sent out an email to the community urging students to attend the open forum, held as part of the Presidential Task Force on Free Expression’s efforts. Citing the recent Charles Murray incident at Middlebury College — during which a speaker event turned violent over opposing beliefs — Liebowitz expressed concern that, “absent a shared understanding of what free expression means and how it relates to one’s education, what happened at Middlebury could happen at any American college or university.”

Reflecting on Liebowitz’s words, one student at Wednesday’s event criticized Liebowitz for not addressing the content of Murray’s ideology in the letter and for not being “willing to say that this is something that we shouldn’t approve of.”

“My problem is that we aren’t willing to prioritize the feelings of our students of color, of our trans students, of our not-straight folk, but we are willing to prioritize the free expression of someone who is willing to hurt those students,” said the student.

Chief Diversity Officer Mark Brimhall-Vargas, a member of the Task Force, moderated the event. Also present was Prof. George Hall (ECON), chair of the task force, who explained that the team of faculty members and students plans to compile a statement of principles and set of recommendations. Still, Hall emphasized that those documents will not be set in stone.

“If you look at Brandeis’ history, we’ve had a number of episodes where free speech and free expression have come to the fore,” said Brimhall-Vargas. “How we handle that — the response from the administration — has often been left wanting.”

Beginning with small-group discussions, the expanded room-wide debate drew together with a central discussion point: when and where does the University community draw the line?

“Whose voices are we trying to protect? Who are the marginalized?” asked another student who was critical of Liebowitz’s email.

“It’s not fair to a marginalized group of any sort that they always have to explain themselves, and explain history, explain what is going on in this country to these people, and I’m sorry, they’re very ignorant,” said Aicha Tavares ’19. “It’s torturous. It’s hard on the soul. As if people don’t go through enough.”

Added another student: “I don’t expect any Black person to have the time to talk to racists. … I don’t expect any gay person to have the time and energy to talk to homophobic [people]. I don’t expect any Jewish person to have the time or the energy to talk to a neo-Nazi.”

David Piegaro ’20 said that if people are to be “intellectually honest,” conservatives are also marginalized on campus.

“I think that the idea that conservative students are marginalized is damaging, dangerous and blatantly false,” said Student Union Vice President Paul Sindberg ’18, who is running for Student Union President.

“Conservatism is not an identity. It is not something that people have experienced housing discrimination [for]; it is not something that has got people experiencing hiring discrimination, … it is not an inherent character quality. It is not something that someone can wear on their skin.”

Piegaro responded that conservatism can be deeply tied to one’s faith and values, which are part of their identity.

“Where is the line; everyone asks, where is the line?” said Evan Mahnken ’19, returning to the topic of free speech and hate speech. “What if there isn’t a line? What if we invite these people, and if you don’t want to hear their ideas, you don’t go to the thing. That’s the nature of free speech.” He added, “There’s this idea that Charles Murray is committing violence by his speech. The people who committed violence as a result of him coming to their campus were the ones who committed violence.”

Already-present tensions continued to rise significantly.

“If Brandeis University were to have Charles Murray speak on its campus with its president approving, the members of the Board of Trustees approving his presence on campus, that is very different from saying you have the right to have the freedom of speech,” said a student. “That is Brandeis University condoning his ideas or saying that it’s fine for him to say that Black people are genetically inferior to white people. That is his entire argument.”

“There’s a difference between someone saying something that is hurtful, and that is devaluing, and that is dehumanizing — which is exactly what Charles Murray’s work is than saying something that is just another school of thought that is out there,” said another student. “When it’s devaluing someone’s life and their livelihood and limiting their ability to live and breathe and be? It is harmful. It is hurtful. You wouldn’t want it happening to you. It doesn’t, because the world isn’t set up that way.”

After a brief discussion about student journalism and statistics on student perceptions of free expression on campus, the conversation regained its vigor, with graduate students like Sonia Kikeri at the forefront.

“Do not take pictures of me,” Kikeri began. “I would just like everyone to take a moment to look around this room. See who is here. See what voices are being continually uplifted. And see what voices are continually having to fight and defend themselves.”

A Justice press camera snapped.

“And see what rights are being violated,” she added.

Kikeri put her hand up. Other students stood in front of her, blocking her from the camera’s view as she went on.

“I’m just so appalled that our president chose to term the actions of the students as vulgar,” said Kikeri. “That is anti-Blackness. That is silencing of the students.”

The scene grew more confrontational. After one student shushed another, the latter walked close in front of him “so you can shush me to my face.”

“This is why we’re having this conference,” said Piegaro, holding up his phone to film. “This is exactly why.”

“Schools literally are where truth is determined to be truth, where power is determined to be power,” said a student. “And if we’re not recognizing the power of our University to literally decide what is truth, whose lives matter, whose do not — then why are we here? And who are we to allow for centuries-old bigotry, racism, white supremacy, hate, murder, violence, to be perpetuated in a place that’s supposed to be the birthplace of something new? You can’t create in a barren land.”

—Editor’s note: Evan Mahnken ’19 produces crossword puzzles for the Justice.


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