Coverage of student protests at Mizzou should not devolve into “free speech” debates 16 November 2015

Recent incidents at the University of Missouri have sparked conversations about the place of free speech in our society. Whereas some argue that all language should be protected and unchallenged, racist language does not represent an “opinion.” Rather, it occupies a harmful position in our vernacular.

Sara Douglas
Student Writer

When freedom of speech is valued more than the safety of marginalized individuals in our nation, something is wrong. Students at the University of Missouri who have chosen to speak out about race-fueled conflicts on their campus are being criticized by some for various reasons: for being too easily offended, for not being able to “prove” the antagonistic events occurred and for overreacting to the aggressions they have experienced.

However, we have to see that in this situation, the events brought to light by the students are simply indicators of a systemic issue that is largely overlooked and downplayed, or at the very least topically diverted so that talking about the root of the problems is skirted in favor of discussion of its symptoms. Widespread use of microaggressions against minorities contributes to the generalized acceptance of such language, often due to pure ignorance, and a reduction in perceived severity of “worse” racist actions.

This results in occurrences like those that have happened at Mizzou, where black students had racial slurs yelled at them repeatedly (among other events detailed in numerous news articles), not getting addressed to the full extent that they should be.

The ensuing conversation that should be focused on ensuring racial equality and the erasure of racially-motivated violence and discrimination is instead eclipsed by white students claiming that their right to “free speech” overrides the black students’ “right to be offended.”

“Free speech” runs in two directions. If one group believes they have the right to use hurtful language directed at another group, the receiving end has the right to reply. Most importantly, they have the right to respond freely without being silenced, told they are overreacting or being trivialized by being portrayed as just having their feelings hurt.

That is exactly what the protests in support of black students’ rights at Mizzou are attempting to convey. Those students are paying money to attend the university to learn, and they should not have to fight for a safe environment in which to accomplish that.

But unfortunately, they do. In order to attain success, minority students on that campus (and many, if not most, others across the nation) have to go to much greater lengths than their white counterparts to obtain equal opportunities.

University officials carry the burden of providing a conducive learning environment for their pupils—all of them, not just the majority.

When confronted multiple times about various components of their campus that were not excelling in establishing such a place, the president and chancellor of the University of Missouri should have leapt at the chance to address those problems at that time; they could have generated a productive dialogue about race relations and progress with students.

But they did not respond adequately or even at all in some cases and allowed the situation to become more extreme.

Even when a graduate student began a hunger strike with the intention of remaining on strike until death, if it came to that, to point out the major flaws in the administration’s handling of racism on campus, there was no strongly unified reaction.

It took the football team protesting to draw the attention of the university’s leadership.

Unfortunately this is likely at least in part because of financial considerations, not a sudden realization on the management’s end of the significance of supporting social justice and civil rights movements.

If the president hadn’t resigned and the football team had continued to boycott their own practices, a one million dollar cancellation fee would have been assessed to the university for having to cancel their upcoming game at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. Also, the graduate student on his hunger strike would have died, but that was not the school’s apparent primary concern.

It is frustrating that a fairly sizable group of students belonging to various groups on campus was unable to illuminate the racist issues they have been experiencing on their own, even when they made multiple attempts to do so. Then having the legitimacy of their raised concerns immediately questioned entirely disrespected their efforts and undermined potential conciliatory progress.

Multiple people corroborated the stories of racist events, but since the vast majority of the witnesses and supporters are minority students, their attestations are being thrown out of consideration in the absence of “proof.”

It’s unfortunately common for minorities’ “soft evidence” (i.e., verbally relating incidents) to be minimized if there isn’t accompanying “hard evidence” (i.e., photos/video/audio recordings).

Instead of pursuing conversations about whether the offending white students should be allowed to use racial slurs or not, we should keep the focus on why there is any acceptance of language and actions that contribute to societally enforced patterns of disenfranchisement and abuse for minorities.

“Freedom of speech” is well and good when utilized to generate honest, open discussions about true problems (and their solutions), but its exploitation—such as is happening at Mizzou—results in the silencing of the very groups to whom we should be listening most closely.