On Free Speech and Silencing It

By: Masha Shollar  |  March 3, 2017

free speech
I don’t like censorship. In writing, I tend to err on the side of incaution. After all, that is precisely the point of a free press. It is not to stifle voices, but to allow them to speak up, whether or not we agree with all those sharing.

I’ve been thinking about free speech and repression of it a lot lately, because current events on this campus have begun to parallel the current events in the political sphere, albeit on a much smaller scale. To my knowledge, we have never been a protest campus—at least we haven’t been during my time as a student. But in the past month, two separate murals were put up on the uptown and downtown campuses: the first protested the Executive Order which placed a hold on immigration from seven, majority Muslim countries—now known as the “Muslim ban”—and was put up by individual students on each campus. The second, which was made up of quotes from the Facebook page “A YU Bochur Says,” accompanied by a sign saying, “Sexism Exists” was put up by the YU Feminists in the Wilf library.

As students on our campus used these murals as a form of protest, across the country at Berkeley, others protested the impending visit and speech of Milo Yiannopoulos, the now-former Breitbart writer.

Yiannopoulos styles himself as a champion of free speech. In an increasingly touchy America, he stands as one of the heroic few willing to protect our First Amendment right: the lone man left defending the Alamo against a horde who wish to muzzle anyone who doesn’t agree with them.

At least, that’s how he presents it.

But actually, Yiannopoulos uses the First Amendment as a not so convincing smokescreen for mere hate speech. He’s less of a free speech advocate and far more a shameless provocateur. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to find a group he’s not offended. He declared feminism to be “cancer,” stated that Jews run the media and the banks (“It’s just a fact. It’s not anti-Semitic to point out statistics.”) and posted photos to his Flickr account in which he wore an Iron Cross. He called African-American comedian and SNL cast member Leslie Jones “barely literate” and posted screenshots to his Twitter account in which Jones appears to tweet offensive things about Yiannopoulos—except it later transpired that he had faked the screenshots to shore up the legitimacy of his own vitriol. His racist tweets eventually led to him being permanently banned from the site. Yiannopoulos decried his Twitter suspension as “cowardly,” although some could argue that it is infinitely more cowardly to hide behind a computer screen and capitalize on the remoteness of the internet to throw racial slurs at another human being.

This is Yiannopoulos’ act, his supposedly gutsy, no holds barred approach to the First Amendment. But actually, he uses free speech to muzzle minority voices, undermining the very right he claims to defend.

After tape was released earlier this month in which Yiannopoulos joked about pedophilia, CPAC disinvited him and Simon and Schuster dropped his book deal. Yiannopoulos, doing his best impression of shame, delivered a brief and unfeeling apology and resigned from Breitbart. He presented this move as a noble fall on his sword. In the crusade for free speech, he cast himself as a martyr for the cause. This despite the fact that he attained his fame and celebrity by insulting and silencing every minority group he could think of and engaged in sycophantic demagoguery that panders to those who choose to hate anyone different than themselves.

But why should we, on this campus, care? Yiannopoulos was never slated to speak here, as he was at Berkeley.

Because on this campus, too, people have been using free speech as an excuse to silence others, especially when those others are the minority. In the supposed name of freedom, they have denigrated, stereotyped and muzzled. When the YU Feminist Club—still in its infancy—posted on university affiliated Facebook groups to advertise and recruit members, the comments section was crammed with sexism, from suggestions for the meetings to be held in the cafeteria kitchen to a recommendation to rechristen it the “I Love Cats” club.

When the club put up a mural several days later, made up of sexist quotes from the Facebook page “A YU Bochur Says,” accompanied by the sign “Sexism Exists,” it was torn down after just an hour.

And I heard many students defend both of these incidents of blatant sexism as free speech. It was implied that if women wanted to exercise their First Amendment, they should expect that other students would, in turn, exercise their own free speech by silencing them.

Free speech is a shoddy excuse for such behavior. Instead of calling this what it is—men quoting legality in an attempt to veneer their sexist behavior in righteousness—it is recast in one of two ways: either this is dismissed as mere “boys will be boys” behavior a la Bluto Blutarsky (but with less charisma and more aggression), or everyone rallies around the banner of free speech with a fist in the air.

Sexism and censorship are not political acts. If you want an example of how to utilize your right to free speech, look to the YU Feminist Club—because their mural was just that. Look to the students who hung up the posters protesting the travel ban on both campuses. That is free speech. The tearing down of these murals was not a radical act of freedom, whatever some might believe. It was censorship. It was a silencing of minority voices. This was not done in the service of free speech and did not further a diversity of opinion or belief.

Free speech does not exist to be the whipping boy of repression and censorship, because free speech exists precisely to protect us from such things. To tear down the murals was to choke the speech of others and, in the case of the feminism mural, an active suppression of the female voice.

Repression of women’s voices is not freedom of speech: it is a trampling of speech, a negation of speech. This is nothing new: for so long, some men have chosen to use their voices and their power to silence women. In The Odyssey, Telemachus orders his mother, Penelope, to “go back to your quarters… Speech will be the business of men.”

When feminist Shulamith Firestone went to the National Conference for New Politics in 1967, she and the others with her tried to make the committee recognize the women’s caucus present and allow them to speak. But director William F. Pepper refused to let the group share their concerns and told Firestone, “Cool down, little girl. We have more important things to talk about than women’s problems.”

Just a few weeks ago, Senator Elizabeth Warren was censured by Republicans while trying to read a letter from Coretta Scott King on the Senate floor. After a vote, she was forced to sit down and was barred from speaking on the floor for 30 hours.

Free speech is a radical act, make no mistake. Subverting it is not. If you’re looking for radical, look to the women at this school who are refusing to allow speech to be the purview of men alone, who will not “cool down.”

Don’t silence another person to make yourself be heard. If you disagree with the sentiment the feminism mural promoted, put up your own right next to it. Your free speech should not come at the expense of someone else’s. So instead of refusing to have a conversation, start one.