Opinion | Letters to the Editor

Letter to the editor: Don't oversimplify free speech

To the Editor: 

Let’s start with some facts.

Nowhere in Seffi Kogen’s widely circulated Facebook post did he demand removing Students for Justice in Palestine’s banner from Barnard Hall as Barry Weinberg suggests in his op-ed (“Free speech at Barnard, but only when it’s easy,” March 16). Instead, Kogen said to “speak out.” In my own email to Barnard President Debora Spar, I also did not demand for the banner to be taken down. I expressed my disapproval of a one-sided, provocative political message hanging from Barnard Hall, and as a student of this University, I had the right to state my opinion to the administration. Other students and alumni who conveyed messages of disapproval may have requested the removal of the banner, but they had the right to do so, as well.

What Barnard chose to do with this influx of opinions and requests is not grounds to critique Kogen, LionPAC, or Columbia/Barnard Hillel. Ultimately, it was the Barnard administration that made the call, and Barnard Facilities that took SJP’s banner down, doing so in order to “better define a policy” for student banners on Barnard Hall.

This is wholly dissimilar to the incident Weinberg cited in his op-ed, when LionPAC’s flyers were allegedly ripped from bulletin boards last year. In that instance, there was no subsequent uproar, no public disagreement from any party or group. There was only a subtle silencing of a pro-Israel voice on campus, and that story was never even covered by Spectator. 

Weinberg also writes that students “disagreed with or felt uncomfortable with” the banner’s message, but it is crucial to realize that the issue lies deeper. Such oversimplification of a complex, sensitive issue through a slogan and a green, borderless Israel was damaging, hurtful, and made some students feel unsafe. Whether or not you deem their responses as legitimate is inconsequential, and the backlash directed at the pro-Israel community on campus for addressing their concerns is misguided. If we value free speech as much as we say we do, we must strive to create an environment where people can “speak out” and respond to incidents like this without fear of blame, scorn, or condemnation. 

Weinberg proposes that a more appropriate response from the pro-Israel community would have been a banner of its own. But I believe that, too, would be inappropriate décor for a space that should be used to promote nonpartisan events. Contentious political messages flapping in the wind in front of Barnard Hall should not be our standard for free speech. They act as divisive inhibitors to any productive speech at all, turning dialogue into polemic debate and turning those who disagree into a spectacle.

Talia Lakritz, BC ’16

March 16, 2014 

To respond to this letter, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

Comments

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Anonymous posted on

Incredible article, Talia. I definitely think that this issue is much deeper than Weinberg had expressed, and I appreciate this more nuanced look at the situation.

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Can we stop talking about this please posted on

And just enjoy Spring Break?

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Anonymous posted on

No one forced you to read this.

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Anonymous posted on

Excellent.

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Anonymous posted on

Let's talk about the TENS OF FLYERS hung by pro-Israel groups that members of SJP RIPPED DOWN with their own hands. No emailing involved. And now SJP cries "free speech"? Hypocrisy at its finest.

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Anonymous posted on

Hypocrisy on whose part? The pro Israel group plaster flyers all over the place, and yet complained about SJP hanging one poster.

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Heisenberg posted on

Just curious why people think it is a violation of free speech that a private institution chooses to not hang up your sign in literally their most prominent area (not even factoring in that this would obviously appear like it is an implicit endorsement of the sign's content), yet allows you to advertise everywhere else on campus. Just hang it up elsewhere on campus and stop causing controversy over nothing.

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Anonymous posted on

Free speech means that EVERYONE is allowed a voice.

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Anonymous posted on

Let's also address the fact that hate speech isn't free speech. Whether SJP (or anyone else) understands the generations of anti-Semitism built into anti-Zionism rhetoric or not, it's there. For many students on this campus, anti-Zionism is synonymous with anti-Semitism. While you may not agree, the simple fact that SOME students on campus feel their Jewish identity is targeted when SJP suggests that the Jewish homeland does not have the right to exist using language and standards that are strikingly similar to historical anti-Semitism should be enough to get this banner removed from campus.

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M posted on

I suggest you look into the Skokie v Illinois case, in which a neo-fascist group was given the right to demonstrate in an overwhelmingly Jewish neighborhood. So "the simple fact" that some students feel targeted means little to nothing.

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Anonymous posted on

Well if that's your goal, then we really have bigger issues to work out considering how much of a disaster that ended up being. We aren't talking about legalities here -- Barnard is a private institution and can do whatever it wants with its property. Legally there is no recourse. The argument the person above is making it about the ethics, so it's interesting you compare the SJP to a bunch of Nazis.
And, by the way, I believe they were banned from marching in New York anyway.

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Anonymous posted on

not to sound 'murica but actually you are basically wrong. in this country there is no distinction between hate speech and free speech.

also you are ignoring the political context in which conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is incredibly useful in shutting down discourse with which the Zionist disagrees.

but back to the main point: hate speech vs free speech is not a thing because it's all free speech. legality and ethics are intertwined here, and the moral is the political. the jurisprudence surrounding hate speech has not only established the legality of hate speech but also, in doing so, established the ethical/moral grounds of protecting hate speech, at least in the American context.

this is one of the very few things that United States has done well for itself compared to other liberal democracies around the world.

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Anonymous posted on

I am probably the most pro-Israel Turk on the face of earth but I truly think that the removal of SJP's banner from BC was overzealous, to say the least. I don't know the precedent but if other political banners have been hung in the place where SJP hung their banner, it is entirely baseless to request that SJP's banner be removed for 'flapping a contentious political message in front of Barnard Hall.' Firstly, who decides? Secondly, on what basis? Thirdly, is there such a thing as a non-contentious political message anyway? What is a non-contentious political message?

As I said, I don't know the precedent but if other political banners have been hung at Barnard Hall, this had to be left to hang. Even if there is no precedent, the banner should have been left hanging. If LionPAC, Hillel or anyone else has a problem with that, they should have just phoned Barnard Facilities to book the next available slot to hang their own.

Of course, you can request that the banner be removed on whatever leverage you have and you may even get your way, if you're a big donor etc. You could probably even ask PrezBo to dance naked in front of Alma if you were to write a billion dollar check, but that's not the issue here. Leveraging to suppress speech of any kind is never as innocuous as Talia wants to make it. If SJP's banner is left hanging, what is the imminent harm in this? Theoretically, NRA could go and hang a banner at Barnard Hall. Why shouldn't the Palestinians? As long as LionPAC/Hillel/etc.'s right to reciprocate in kind is preserved, the banner must have remained. Also, look at the mess it has made. At best, Spar and the Jewish Student Community in Barnard have made themselves look obnoxious, if not odious.

Can we just grow up a little, please?

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Anonymous posted on

"I don't know the precedent but if other political banners have been hung in the place where SJP hung their banner, it is entirely baseless to request that SJP's banner be removed for 'flapping a contentious political message in front of Barnard Hall.'"

Agree with the logic of your whole post, but the precedent is that there are no political messages there.

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Anonymous posted on

It's interesting, if not hypocritical, for SJP to be sooo concerned about free speech when (and only when) it comes to their right to malign Israel.

One never hears SJP, or their ilk, protest against the following:

Feb 13, 2013
In another story the Western media apparently refuses to cover, any Palestinian who dares to criticize Hamas or the Palestinian Authority risks being arrested or summoned for interrogation.
Palestinian journalists are now hoping to bring this to the attention of President Barack Obama when he meets with President Mahmoud Abbas next month.
The journalists say they want United States and the rest of the world to know that the crackdown on freedom of expression in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip is designed to hide the fact that Palestinians are governed by two repressive regimes that have no respect for human rights and democracy.

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Marco posted on

To Anonymous, Which media, the right, the left, centrist, independent, or foreign press? We also have an unrestricted internet service in the US. I live in the US and I know about the West Bank and Gaza Strip is designed to hide the fact that Palestinians are governed by two repressive regimes that have no respect for human rights and democracy.

Hamas: No Muslim shall rest until the banner of Islam flies over every inch of the land.

Israelis are in conflict when the world asks them to make peace and let their guard down with their Arab neighbors when there is overwhelming evidence that Israel's Arab neighbors are willing to brutally slaughter their own people when they demonstrate or demand any changes from their own government.

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