Liana Riley is a political science junior and Mustang News columnist. These views do not necessarily reflect the editorial coverage of Mustang News.
Was it a symbol of oppression, an homage to the defenders of free speech, or was it just a piece of blank paper, slapped onto a whiteboard, and defaced with insults worthy of a South Park episode?
This week I will be discussing the Cal Poly College Republicans’ “Freedom of Speech Wall,” which has gained more traction than anyone could have reasonably anticipated.
And isn’t it so timely with the paralleled situations at the University of Missouri and Yale? Although these issues explicitly address racial dynamics and issues of privilege, Cal Poly has managed to find itself within the ranks of endowment-saturated universities with bloated privilege, not in terms of the caliber of our academics, but the grievances of our students.
Although it’s hard to consider something systemic when it is in the scope of a university, campuses are microcosms of greater spectrums of societal discrimination and prejudice that should not be disregarded simply because we are in a contained environment.
The wall and its writings are such a divisive issue in part because college students’ identities are still in their formative stages. Students want to belong to an environment which is safe for identity development and the fostering of self-growth, two very essential pieces of one’s college experience.
So there really is merit to the two diverging sides of this inconclusive debate.
Let’s begin with the outcry from the free speech-centric students declaring there is a war against their First Amendment rights. The philosopher Jurgen Habermas would likely attribute it to the conflictual nature of the public sphere and government.
Anytime you have a governing body such as a university, there will be a question of the amount of control the body can exert over you, ultimately ending up with a variety of picketers crying for their autonomy back.
Great thinkers such as John Stuart Mill have argued all ideas, all speech, have merit. Even the most radical extremists, the heretics, and the dogmatics should have the absolute guarantee of freedom of speech.
And although it may be hard to stomach, as Rosa Luxemburg said “the freedom of speech means nothing, unless it means the freedom of those who think differently.” So ultimately we are binded to the opinions of our dissenters, our disagreers and our intellectual opposites. Once you have established that those comments, although flagrantly disrespectful, are allowed to be said, it is no longer a question of what is permitted, but how to adjust the campus climate, so no one feels a need to say it at all.
We must also consider that these incidents do not spawn out of thin air; there are always repressed feelings of long term and deep seated discrimination, exclusion and mistreatment that cause these issues to rise to the surface. It cannot be attributed to the free speech wall itself, it was simply a catalyst in this chronic problem.
Often times, incidents like these are used as platforms to express disdain for a system that has been failing for quite some time and is now on the brink of collapse. A lot of the voices on campus are echoing the sentiments of those who stood up in the first place at Stand in Solidarity; this is not a free speech issue, it’s a matter of campus climate.
It would be utterly naive and irrational to assume any of those offended by the speech are calling for the dismantling of the first amendment’s free speech clause. But it seems a lot of students on campus seem to tackle this issue by fear-mongering, pretending their free speech rights are in danger of being wiped out by these so-called “social justice warriors.”
No one is suggesting we abolish the marketplace of ideas, the open forum, our ability to debate; we simply need to rearrange the priorities of this campus to better suit those who feel uncomfortable on a regular basis.
The efforts made by the Queer Student Union (QSU), Stand in Solidarity and minority students seem to be a stronghold of highly motivated youth activists, ready for change to become more than just a motivator thrown around on social media. They are seeking concrete solutions, and the Julian A. McPhee University Union (UU) forum this past Sunday is just one of the efforts being made to actually effect change, as opposed to just taking it to an online forum.
Culture isn’t easy to change. These are learned ideas, behaviors and beliefs that are reinforced everyday through our interactions, the media and our society in general. Rather than prohibit expressions of hate speech on our campus, the only logical and effective course of action is to discourage the sentiments of intolerance that sustain it.