Finding common ground through freedom of speech

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The Constitution of the United States of America, signed into law in 1789, is considered to be the foundation of American Government and is the supreme law of the land. While it has been amended multiple times in its 228 year existence, its basic principles have been unaltered since its conception.

The First Amendment, arguably the most important in the entire document, reflects several freedoms which the founding fathers thought were essential in order to preserve a free and fair society. The First Amendment, according to the Cornell Law School, “guarantees freedoms concerning religion, expression, assembly and the right to petition.” Additionally, it restricts Congress from favoring one religion over another, and prevents the government from writing laws which restrict “the press or the rights of individuals to speak freely.”

Public schools, for many years, have enjoyed the benefits and freedoms of the constitution since they are funded by the U.S. Government, states, and local municipalities. Private schools, funded by students and donors, are essentially allowed to write their own rules of conduct and freedom of speech separate from the laws of the Constitution. The Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review organization notes, “much of the arguments over the proper scope of First Amendment protection on private campuses are moral or philosophical questions, rather than strictly legal ones.”

Thus, private colleges are more likely to use their own judgement when weighing the liberty of their students versus protecting those who are affected by hate speech.

In light of the issue of freedom of speech, I saw a debate occur on the Muhlenberg Facebook page after a group of alumni students expressed their disdain for Black Lives Matter Canada speaker Janaya Khan, who was recently invited onto our campus. Some of these comments expressed embarrassment, regret and hopelessness for our college, while other alumni and current students fought back to praise their speech, which promoted racial equality and activism. After discussing this online debate in three of my classes, multiple flyers went up around school protesting the BLM movement and highlighting statistics about black crime and police officers being targeted nationwide. This post on Facebook has subsequently been deleted and all traces of the conversation erased.

I believe that both Janaya Khan’s overarching message and the flyer distributed around campus have equally important messages which need to be heard by all students on campus. It is important to note that both sides of the story have merit, and explain why said students took the sides that they did.

On July 10, 2016, a dashboard camera clip was released by the Cobb County Police department in Georgia, when officer Lt. Greg Abbott pulled over a white woman during a traffic stop. In the clip, officer Abbott is recorded reassuring the woman, “Remember, we only kill black people. Yeah. We only kill black people, right?”

To a student who supported Khan’s speech on campus, this clip reflects the deeply rooted racism and bigotry which still exists in police departments nationwide today. Furthermore, this recording would likely cause feelings of anger and distrust of American police officers, specifically for those students who are of color

In another instance, during a Black Lives Matter rally in St. Paul Minnesota, protesters were heard chanting, “Pigs in a blanket, fry ‘em like bacon.” St. Paul Police Federation President Dave Titus noted, “I don’t think chanting or singing what’s basically promoting killing police officers is peaceful.” A student or alumni could possibly use this example to denounce BLM, and present the group as an organization which desires to see police officers “eliminated” from our streets.

Students on campus need to recognize that both supporters and detractors of BLM need to have conversations about race, equality and the role of police departments in order to find common ground on issues which have become largely politicized. It is reasonable to suggest that both groups have their own interests in preserving equality and peace in the land, while simultaneously being able to make progress on issues which still plague our country. If we do not have these conversations on campus, we will never move over the mountains of partisanship and find solutions which benefit both those who support Black Lives Matter and those who are against it.

I support students who can weigh the arguments made by Janaya Khan and those who are concerned over the lives of police officers to find common policy goals which will facilitate real change. Pushback and debate should be normal behaviors of college students, but I do not agree with the decision to delete the original posts which clearly ignited an important conversation that needs to be had. Step outside of your comfort zone, and confront those who disagree with you because you might just learn something you didn’t know.

Discrediting and talking down to those who do not agree with you only stokes flames of distrust and entrenches the opinions of others you are trying to change. For both students and alumni, have an open mind and you will find the answers which are necessary to change this country for good.

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