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Free Speech

 

At Issue: As you know, tensions between Jewish and Muslim students at UCI made headlines this week as a group of Muslim students planned to wear stoles with the Arabic word “shahada” on them during their commencement ceremonies. The dozen or so students who chose to wear the garb said the dress was an affirmation of their faith. But Jewish students on campus argue that the green stole color and “shahada” –and an interpretation of the word –could be associated with suicide attacks and Hamas. Do you think campus officials were right in allowing the students to wear the symbols, citing free speech rights? How do you think the tension between Jews and Muslims at the school should be dealt with?

Response: The American Nazi party over 20 years ago won the right to march in Skokie, Illinois, a town well known for its large number of Jewish residents and concentration camp survivors. The ACLU’s stand for free speech was nowhere more uncompromising than in their support of the Nazi Party’s First Amendment rights, to the outrage of many. I agree with the principle that you may say what you wish, even if I don’t like it or agree or if I am not even exactly sure what you mean by it. (There are, of course, exceptions such as the classic example that you may not shout “fire” in a crowded theater if there is not one.)

When I was in high school, three Unitarian students in the Des Moines public schools won a Supreme Court case affirming their right to wear black armbands to protest government policy in Vietnam. (Vietnam War protestors in 1965 Iowa were considered traitors.) The Court found the wearing of armbands to be “symbolic acts” included within the meaning of free speech and thus protected by the First Amendment. The case firmly established that students do not “shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate.” Concerning the risk of disturbance, Justice Fortas pointed out that “apprehension of disturbance is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression.” When the actions of those expressing their views do not impinge upon the rights of others and are not in themselves disruptive, the possibility that others may respond by causing disruption should not be used as a reason to ban free speech.

I attended commencement at UCSD this month, and I was amazed by the variety of apparel worn under and on the gowns, not to mention the decorations, signs and messages written on caps and stoles. The provost was handed a paper by each student with his or her name written on it, and then dutifully announced, “Jane I love you Mom and Dad Smith,” “Jim Magnificent Bastard Brown” and several controversial political statements in lieu of middle names.

The universities should continue to offer courses, public forums and every educational opportunity to help students to develop the values and skills needed to live together in a diverse community. Preventing freedom of speech is not the solution. Students are the hope of the future, but school is a microcosm of the global community. We should not be surprised that these serious problems have not yet been solved at UCI any more than at other places around the world.

- Rev. Dr. Deborah Barrett

Published: June 25, 2004