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Davis, California

Monday, February 26, 2024

Tolerating Free Speech


The Wesleyan Argus, the school newspaper of Wesleyan University in Connecticut, drew criticism last month for publishing an opinion column that questioned whether the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement created an atmosphere of hostility that deligitimized its purpose.

Unsurprisingly, a large backlash against the paper ensued. Some activists called for boycotts. Other students reacted by throwing out and burning the paper at its distribution sites.

These protests culminated on Oct. 18, when the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) caved to outside pressure from members of the student body and voted to slash the paper’s budget from $30,000 to $13,000.

The actions taken by WSA are not consistent with the basic principles of free speech. For a campus newspaper to function properly, student governments must understand that the paper should be granted as many degrees of journalistic freedom as possible.

Ostensibly for the purpose of “reducing paper waste,” the WSA’s resolution — by reducing The Argus’ print run — will effectively cut a large stream of the newspaper’s revenue. In this way, the WSA is literally squelching speech by making it less available and visible to the public.

The Aggie Editorial Board, while disagreeing with the arguments of The Argus column in question, denounces the WSA for supporting such an obviously political revenge scheme.

BLM is an important movement that strives to end institutional racism and support a system by which law enforcement can be held accountable for prejudiced policing tactics. Its actions are both commendable and controversial, and will naturally invite criticism. It’s in the interest of both sides of the debate that this criticism is allowed to be vocalized.

It’s a disappointing reality that many students would now give up free speech for the reason that it might offend or marginalize certain communities. Campus communities should remember Mario Savio and the 1964 Free Speech Movement he led at UC Berkeley. Those demonstrations were instrumental in establishing and expanding how students and faculty can express their politics.

Students who burn newspapers should keep in mind that given a different set of historical circumstances, they could have found themselves crushed by censorship.

Of course, none of this means that anything and everything should be published, and that journalism is allowed to be needlessly offensive. But that was not the case in the BLM article, which did not resort to stereotyping or use of hateful speech.

It’s evident then, that resolutions like the one the WSA passed reinforces the fears of many students that they will be penalized for voicing their opinions on controversial matters. Colleges should facilitate the opposite kind of reactions to these issues. To Wesleyan’s credit, its President, Michael S. Roth, did issue a statement warning against, “ideological conformity” at the university level.

UC Davis should learn from Wesleyan’s experience, and continue to hold debates in a way that doesn’t pretend there is one solution to every problem in society. As a campus that has an active BLM presence, and a history of divisiveness in general, preserving the right to dissent will ultimately strengthen our community.


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