Panel discusses free speech, discrimination in the context of BJL protests| Dec 16, 2015
The relationship between the issue of free speech and the issue of combating discrimination is a complicated one, panelists said in a discussion hosted by The Daily Princetonian on Wednesday.
The panel featured Joanna Anyanwu ’15 GS from the Black Justice League, Samantha Harris ’99 of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Joshua Leifer ’17 from The Princeton Progressive and Peter Singer, professor in the Center for Human Values.
Harris initiated the conversation by noting that increasing calls of censorship from students are detrimental to unlearning prejudice.
“In many ways, the highly visible student protests around the country are a sign of the robustness of free speech around the country,” she said, adding that she is disappointed to see student protestors issue demands that undermined the same rights that made free speech possible.
Singer said he agreed with Harris, and that if we prohibit alternative viewpoints, the truth will simply become a matter of dogma instead of a living truth that we constantly have to think about.
“The danger that we face today is that we are all going to agree on something or won’t have contrary opinions expressed because they seem too politically incorrect to be expressed,” Singer said.
Leifer, however, noted that controversies over the limits of “free speech” are not at the core of ongoing debates. Rather, addressing questions of racism should be the centerpiece of discussion, he said.
He noted that people only bring up free speech when their agenda is being challenged, and that no disciplinary actions were taken against students for exercising free speech.
Citing research on the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s staff members, Leifer also challenged the mission of FIRE and expressed skepticism over its apolitical position. In response, Harris noted that FIRE encompasses a team representing a diverse array of viewpoints and firmly opposes the suppression of student speech.
On similar premises, Anyanwu stated that philosophical conversations about free speech must be rooted in historical context. Anyanwu explained that the principle of free speech taken as a broad value can translate to silencing minorities and preserving the status quo of racism.
“I understand free speech is of importance, but that, for me, is not divorced from the history of this country and who has historically enjoyed this right,” Anyanwu said.
Anyanwu further noted that the media has been extremely complicit in institutionalized violence against black people. She explained that crime and antisocial behavior has distorted public perception of black people, stating that products of post-mortem media violence are often hyper-consumed and exploited for profit, which goes back to an American tradition of lynching. Additionally, Anyanwu said, media on the University’s campus has failed to be impartial and has often lacked journalistic integrity when covering inequality faced by black students.
“I think the media in this campus has failed tremendously in covering black pain,” she said.
Members of the audience raised questions about the panelists’ knowledge of the history of black students and black student protests, the misrepresentation of minorities in mainstream media and the delayed acceptance of cultural competency trainings.
In response to a question from the audience, Singer noted that he would not know about the racist history of Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879, if not for the BJL. However, he added, disagreement should not equal prohibition. Singer added that, as a Jewish person, he does not oppose the rights of those who deny the Holocaust.
“Obviously, theoretical discussions about free speech are important, but we have to ask ourselves why is it that when protests of racism come up, the question of free speech is raised,” Leifer said.
The panel took place at 4:30 p.m. in McCosh 10.
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of the last quote was misattributed. Joshua Leifer '17 said the quote. The 'Prince' regrets the error.