Editorial: The State of Freedom of Speech on Campus

By the Editorial Board

Ryan Davis '17, Art Director

The recent terrorist attacks in Paris in response to Charlie Hebdo’s comic strips have sparked a worldwide dialogue about freedom of speech. Charlie Hebdo’s content is often racially charged, overtly offensive, and vulgar. In the aftermath of the attacks, countless people have stood in support of Charlie Hebdo, trumpeting the magazine as a proud example of the importance of free speech. However, as David Brooks pointed out in his New York Times opinion piece, “I Am Not Charlie Hebdo,” many people support the ideal of freedom of speech, but in everyday practice are quick to censor themselves and others.
The Skidmore Community has fostered an environment too eager to censor dialogue in the name of political correctness. A community more open to the use of satire and comedy to approach uncomfortable and touchy topics could aid progress in social issues on campus, such as race and gender relations.
The line between satire and hate speech is a fine one, and often a sensitive one. It is an ill-defined line because it varies from one individual to the next. One student may find a comment abhorrent, another may view it as completely acceptable. The Skidmore community tends to veer away from potentially touchy subjects altogether, so as never to offend a fellow student. Similarly, President Glotzbach’s recent welcome-back letter called for continued “diversity-related initiatives” but offered no new solutions—only more lectures.
Satire has always served the purpose of bringing to light unspoken truths and controversial issues. Its intent is to provoke and question its audience, not to attack them. A venue on campus for more satire and uncensored speech could open up a wider, less trepidatious dialogue on social issues. We often reflect on social issues at large, but talking about concrete concerns on campus is more difficult, partially due to our tendency as a community to draw offense so readily.
For example, Skidomedy has performed skits involving race issues that gained enormous laughter and applause at the time of the showing, but later received bias reports. The Skidmore News ran an article a few years ago that highlighted the overwhelming whiteness of the Skidmore Outing Club, the largest club on campus. The article was sent to the Bias Reponse Group and we felt it necessary to remove the piece from our site.
It is very important not to confuse satire with language or actions that should deservedly constitute as a bias incident. Hate speech is hate speech, never comedy. However, the administration's procedure for bias incidents lacks clarity.
Skidmore defines a bias incident as “an act of bigotry, harassment, or intimidation involving a member of the Skidmore community that a reasonable person would conclude is directed at a member or group within the Skidmore community based on race, color, ethnicity, nationality, economic background, age, physical and mental health or ability, sexual orientation, sex, gender identity or expression, marital status, veteran status, or religious practice. A bias incident can occur whether the act is intentional or unintentional. Speech or expression that is consistent with the principles of academic freedom does not constitute a bias incident.”
Who constitutes a “reasonable person” and an unreasonable person, according to the Bias Response Group? And what does “speech or expression consistent with the principles of academic freedom” mean? This language lacks precision. Consequently, a bias incident can be filed on an arbitrary basis.
The student body should be capable of discerning the difference between appropriate satire and a bias incident. We must be more open-minded regarding the use of satire and comedy and be less cautious when communicating about social issues. Uneasy questions must be confronted and addressed outside of Intergroup Relations classrooms. The school community will benefit from diversity when it realizes the importance of truly difficult dialogue.

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