Drawing the line: Campus divides over free speech debate

by Allison Hagan / Beacon Staff • March 22, 2017

About 100 people attended EBONI’s forum Wednesday.
About 100 people attended EBONI’s forum Wednesday.

Tensions between the political left and right have reached a new high on campus, and some students are trying to turn distaste into dialogue.

About 100 students gathered in the Bill Bordy Theater Wednesday night for The Office of Intercultural Student Affairs' event “Who Has The Right To Speak?” to discuss the boundaries between free speech and hate speech—the crux of much of the conflict between liberals and conservatives at Emerson.

Students discussed the idea that those on the right should not look at being called racist as a personal attack or an attempt to silence differing opinions, but rather as learning experience. Those who feel their voices aren’t being heard need to defend their ideas and respond to criticism, they argued.

“People are letting you know where they think you’re wrong,” one student said. “That’s where people get it twisted.”

Some students agreed that the discussion at the event was hindered because of a lack of conservative voices and supported the idea of an organization for those individuals to challenge right-wing ideas by engaging in dialogue with the rest of the community.

Many at the event said that people of color are entitled to place their emotional well-being before the need to educate others, and that strong allyship is important to ensure that the duty to challenge problematic sentiments doesn’t fall entirely on these students.

“A part of self-preservation is realizing some people are lost,” a student said.

Joelle Herbert, a freshman political communication major, said she attended the event to engage with other students of color, and left realizing the importance of challenging her own beliefs.

“As much as I, as a liberal person, fight for equality and love and redistributing power, I am not perfect and my thinking is definitely not perfect,” Herbert said after the event.

Co-president of Emerson's Black Organization with Natural Interests, which initially planned the forum, Chala Tshitundu declined to comment on the event at this time.

Erik Picone, a sophomore marketing communication major, said he’s not surprised by the current campus climate. The self-identified Libertarian said he believes the issue of leftists silencing conservative opinions is a nationwide trend on college campuses.

In December, Picone made a petition to bring a right-wing speaker to campus that included, among others, the controversial Milo Yiannopoulos, former senior editor of Breitbart News and conservative provocateur, as a potential candidate.

“I made the petition because I saw the increasing trend of college campuses shutting down speakers that disagreed with the majority population at these colleges,” Picone said. “It was really like a test to see how accepting of inclusivity and diversity of opinion is Emerson College.”

Although he said Yiannopoulos’ views are not reflective of his own, Picone said he would support another student bringing Yiannopoulos—who has publicly outed transgender students while speaking on college campuses, written that “America has a Muslim problem,” and called Black Lives Matter a hate group—to campus. He said he believes it’s fair to listen to alternative opinions.

“The idea that people are physically unsafe because somebody who has bad opinions is speaking is still a bit of a stretch to me,” Picone said.

James Hoppe, vice president and dean of campus life, said the college’s core principles of diversity, inclusion, and social justice should not hinder the community’s ability to critique and discuss an array of ideas.

“I think it’s possible … to be an institution that firmly espouses, stands behind, and advocates for a sense of values and be a place where individuals from a wide variety of viewpoints can feel connected,” Hoppe said.

Hoppe said he encourages students to put their personal well-being first and be confident in their values while remaining open-minded.

Communication studies professor Richard West said discourse on campus is a reflection of a national culture of anger and discontent that followed the election of President Donald J. Trump.

Emerson’s largely progressive ideology and location in one of the most liberal parts of the country are heightening these tensions, he said.

“If you are a piece of red in that very large blue map, you’re not feeling too comfortable these days,” West said.

West said he’s aware of several incidents on campus where students have been physically or verbally harassed for expressing alternative views. This intolerance of differing opinions goes both ways: West said he’s also heard conservative students use offensive language toward liberals.

The college’s administration needs to try a more proactive approach to ensure that all students can communicate any point of view that is respectful and within reason, he said.

“Something needs to occur other than just a piece of support in this office or a piece of support with an email,” West said. “That’s not going to work at Emerson College where our students are too engaged and too committed to advocating their positions on a lot of issues.”

President M. Lee Pelton said he acknowledges that conservatives are a numerical minority on campus who hold a privileged position, and that many students feel Trump’s presidency denies the validity of their identities. He said the college is committed to diversity of ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and perspectives.

He said he has met with right-leaning students and plans to continue an open dialogue moving forward to help understand their experience.

While he would not personally invite an alt-right speaker to campus, Pelton said that he would permit those speakers onto the campus if they were invited by a Student Government Association-recognized organization—as long as he believed there was no potential for violence. Pelton recognized that speech that incites riot is not protected under constitutional law.

“I’m less focused on how to fix something, and I’m less focused on taking some concrete action,” Pelton said. “I’m more focused on making some kind of environment where people of good heart and goodwill can talk to each other with understanding, compassion, and empathy.”

 

Editor's Note

The organizers of "Who Has the Right to Speak" asked that specific quotes from the event not be used. Since the event was a public forum, the contents of which are crucial to current campus dialogue, the Beacon has decided to use quotes.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that "Who Has the Right to Speak" was hosted by EBONI. EBONI initially planned the event, but it was ultimately presented by the Office of Intercultural Student Affairs.