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A safe space for free speech

Academic institutions are established upon guiding principles. The fundamental principle is seeking Truth among an ocean of ideas. Part of our journey to the Truth is encountering beliefs and values which may offend our deepest held sensibilities. When engaging in any academic inquiry, all ideas, no matter how hurtful they may appear, must be considered and debated, even slavery, racism, and unequal rights. Additionally, hate speech, including slurs, must be equally protected as reasoned arguments for it uncovers real beliefs which are contestable only when openly expressed.

As people of color who value our right to free expression, we are concerned with the school’s current and potential limitations on our rights. When we restrict our right to free speech, we are asserting that freedom is less important than not being offended; we have surrendered our rights to the bigots we abhor. By engaging with offensive material and disagreeable ideas, we sharpen our senses. We need the sensibility to know how to argue, or address, offensive ideas after leaving our cosy liberal arts environment. If students of color are forcibly sheltered from offensive beliefs, we will have no means of defending our own.

We do not want to be infantilized by certain rules, such as those presented by CORAL’s BIRT petition, that hold that we, as historically marginalized people, cannot be treated equally under the school’s law. The notion that we need protection implies that we are not regarded as equal members of Carleton’s society and presupposes that we are incapable of looking out for ourselves. The goal of college is in fact the opposite: empowerment. If Carleton wants to empower historically marginalized students, it must allow them to confront hurtful, or even hateful ideas directly.

When a Dean responds to a Trump 2016 scribbling on a poster as making students feel “unsafe and marginalized” the Dean, as an authority, has legitimized that certain ideas are inherently dangerous. We believe that property should not be defiled and appreciate the Dean’s empathy for our community. Nonetheless, mere expression of Trump 2016 should not be deemed “unsafe.” We cannot treat ideas as bullets. They are abstracts to be considered before being outright rejected or legislated against.

Once an academic institution has taken a political stance, it has left its neutrality and guided students towards accepting a certain set of ideas rather than enabling us to consider each belief for ourselves. Likewise, any restriction upon free speech is an opinionated stance, rejecting the epistemic humility necessary for the salubrity of academic dialogue. The students who made such an unscrupulous scribbling had expressed a rare, dissenting sentiment, hardly seen in our politically homogenous environment. If students were to write “Feel the Bern” on the poster, we wonder if the administration would have hunted for the culprit with such fervor or even detested the vandalism as unsafe in the first place.

If we want to confront bigotry, we must allow its expression. Currently, Carleton considers it to be a violation of its policy to express, “a gratuitous denigrating claim about, or addressed to, an individual or group.” Consider a student who believes homosexuality to be a sin. Under this vague speech code, the student will not be willing to express their belief, for fear of the hammer of administrative justice. An unspoken belief is an unchallenged belief. An unchallenged belief is an unchanged belief. In an open marketplace of ideas, peers who disagree will be more willing to engage in discourse: conversations which guide us in the search for Truth. Anyone who believes their dogmas to be true should be the most fervent supporters of free speech. Such freedom is the torch to revealing your own perception of Truth to those who disagree.

The impulse to censor is understandable. It’s a quick and easy fix to ridding ourselves of ideas we dislike, a pat on the back of our righteous shoulders.  At best, we have done nothing of any significance to address racism, sexism, or other social ills. At worst, we have restricted the liberties of all students and driven hateful ideas underground where they become stronger, unchallenged by the light of intellectual exchange. The answer to hate speech is not speech codes but more speech. More dialogue.

We encourage the school end its policy against “gratuitous denigrating claims” and create a Biased Incident Reponse Team reflecting the pro-free speech BIRTs in UVA and University of Chicago which have no power to sanction.

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