Barnard's selection of Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, as commencement speaker and its decision to remove a preapproved Students for Justice in Palestine banner from Barnard Hall reveal a double standard in Barnard’s commitment to free speech. Both actions have sparked debate and furor about the issues themselves, but the disparity in Barnard’s treatment of political speech and the idea of “endorsing” speech should be the real controversy.
I have always deeply admired Barnard College, and frequently pointed to its strong and simultaneous commitment to its students’ well-being and independence as a model for other undergraduate institutions. It is for this reason that I chose to give to the Barnard 2012 Senior Fund, instead of my own school’s senior fund, and why I plan to give to Barnard’s annual fund far into the future. However, Barnard’s actions this week have been deeply disappointing.
Although SJP went through existing administrative procedure to hang a banner that did not advocate violence, the banner was quickly removed by the administration. This was done out of concern that Barnard was endorsing the banner’s political message, due its proximity to an official Barnard banner and its prominence on the exterior of Barnard Hall. The administration’s action was in response to student groups’ and student leaders’ “discomfort,” which Seffi Kogen wrote about in an op-ed (“Politicized banners on Barnard Hall hurt community,” March 12).
Barnard’s choice of Richards, the head of the nation’s largest abortion provider, as commencement speaker caused similar controversy. Kate Christensen, president of the Columbia College Republicans, noted in an op-ed that some students found the selection “truly devastating” and “an experience of profound alienation.” However, rather than demanding that Barnard disinvite Richards, Christensen appropriately voiced her opposition in an op-ed (“Barnard College commencement speaker alienates many in community,” March 10). Barnard, for its part, does not seem too worried that people will think having Richards speak at a Barnard-festooned podium will “convey an endorsement” of Richards’ political positions. That’s because I think Barnard is smart enough to know that serving as a venue for ideas is not necessarily the same as endorsing those ideas. Barnard administrators also know that having political speech next to your logo or banner does not in and of itself constitute an endorsement. Barnard is choosing to hide behind that excuse in the case of SJP, even though its behavior in selecting Richards as speaker seems to demonstrate that it knows better.
As for the students who prodded the administrators to remove the banner, if LionPAC and students like Seffi Kogen disagreed with or felt uncomfortable with the message they interpreted in SJP’s banner, the appropriate response would not have been an attempt to remove the banner, but a submission of their own banner that expressed their feelings and beliefs, which could also be hung outside Barnard Hall flanking the Barnard banner.
That, ultimately, is how students should express their opposition to an instance of political speech in an institution that values free speech. Students should not work to get speech they disagree with taken down, regardless of how close to a Barnard banner it is. LionPAC and Hillel should know this, being, along with SJP, members of the Student Governing Board—the governing board for values-oriented student groups that is dedicated to preserving free speech and student groups’ rights to self-governance.
A little over a year ago, Hillel alleged that SJP was taking down Hillel’s posters about Israel. They filed a formal complaint about the incident through SGB's judicial process, so I know that Hillel is deeply familiar with just how traumatizing it can be to have a poster taken down. But the point here is not to question the authenticity or validity of that emotional response—rather, emotional responses simply shouldn't be considered in decisions about permitting political speech.
So why the disconnect between Barnard’s actions regarding SJP and its invitation to Richards? My guess is that Barnard administrators know that freedom of speech for a pro-choice advocate is a lot easier to sell to an all-female student body than it is to sell freedom of speech for a banner advocating justice in Palestine to a student body which is somewhere between 33 and 45 percent Jewish and fairly pro-Israel.
Ultimately, Barnard made a choice that it is in favor of freedom of speech, but only when it is speech that is not too unpopular with its students (or worse, alumni donors). And that, of course, isn’t really freedom of speech at all.
Barry Weinberg is a 2012 graduate of Columbia College. He is the former chair of the Student Governing Board.
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