Many a passionate sentiment has been voiced in the recent controversy surrounding the removal of Students for Justice in Palestine’s banner. Before we jump to conclusions, we need to understand the incident within the scope of the issue of freedom of expression—particularly American notions—in mind.
In any freedom of speech case, there are two central categories worth evaluating: the content of the expression and the circumstances under which the expression is communicated. The first category is irrelevant to the case at hand—Barnard’s rationale was not based on specific content or on emotional response that the content elicited. Let it suffice to say that Barry Weinberg’s (“Free speech at Barnard, but only when it’s easy,” March 16) assertion that “emotional responses simply shouldn’t be considered in decisions about permitting political speech” flies in the face of constitutional protection from categories like fighting words (e.g., Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 1942), speech that provokes a hostile audience reaction (Feiner v. New York, 1951), and threats (Bridges v. California, 1941), which most certainly take into account the severity of human “emotional responses.” Whether the case at hand falls into one of the above categories may be subject to debate, but that is beside the point—it didn’t factor into Barnard’s decision.
The Barnard administration instead made clear that the banner’s removal was due to the circumstances—in this case, the banner’s placement, which “may have inadvertently given the impression that the College supports these events.” Barnard further emphasized that its decision would be applicable to all student groups, saying, “Until we have had time as a community to discuss the banner placements on Barnard Hall and better define a policy, we will not be hanging student banners on Barnard Hall.” Time and again, the Supreme Court has maintained that restrictions that do not prohibit specific content but instead reasonably prohibit all forms of a certain type of expression in a given time, place, or situation do not violate free expression.
The landmark Supreme Court case, Hague v. Committee for Industrial Organization (1939), ruled in favor of freedom of speech in parks and streets only because such spaces have forever “been used for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens, and discussing public questions.” Regardless of Barnard’s on-paper policy regarding the space in front of Barnard Hall, the space had traditionally been used only to publicize non-divisive or nonpolitical Barnard events. As such, the Barnard administration was well within its bounds to uphold unwritten tradition and maintain that the space is not to be used for discussing any divisive “public questions.” Indeed, courts have consistently ruled in favor of constitutional restrictions on free expression in certain contexts, such as the space outside of a school (Grayned v. City of Rockford, 1972).
Our issue, of course, is not a legal one. Barnard is a private institution, and can make its own decisions regarding speech. But analysis of the legal principle clarifies that branding the banner incident as a violation of free speech in any sense may simply be out of place (pun intended). After all, as the Hague decision cautioned, “the privilege of a citizen” to use the public forum “for communication of views ... is not absolute, but relative, and must be exercised in subordination to the general comfort and convenience.” Freedom of expression is not a limitless free-for-all.
One final note. Others involved in this debate have correctly pointed to John Stuart Mill in identifying why, at its core, freedom of speech is so integral to the development of our society. But Mill’s position presupposes that individuals and groups expressing ideas do so with an intent to arrive at truth from productive discourse, and with a recognition that, to quote Mill, “every opinion which embodies somewhat of the portion of truth ... ought to be considered precious.” It is deeply ironic that SJP has—since its official adoption of an “anti-normalization” policy in April 2010—refused to engage in productive discourse with any pro-Israel groups on campus.
If only the intensity of the current debate could result in a greater appreciation for the value of open conversation. Because while advocating for the protection of civil liberties is most assuredly a noble act, we cannot do so without deference to the principles upon which they are predicated.
And we would do well to open up the history books before we carelessly throw around a term that is so crucial to our University’s integrity.
The author is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in philosophy and religion.
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