Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Letter: UMass Amherst: a stifled beacon of democracy

When free speech is restricted

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(Caroline O'Connor/Daily Collegian)

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To the editor,

            Democracy is not defined by elections; it is defined by its citizens. We the people of a democracy must not be subjects, listlessly governed by the powers that be, but instead, citizens actively advocating for the change we wish to see and holding our leaders accountable.

For decades, the University of Massachusetts was a beacon of such vibrant democracy. In 1968, student occupation of the former Mills House, which is now the New Africa House, yielded the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies; student protests in the wake of the bombing of Cambodia in 1970 unleashed a torrent of student protests across the nation. In 1985, student protests prompted the University to divest from apartheid South Africa; in 1997, students gathered to demand the University commit to honoring diversity; in 2007, students went on strike over tuition and fee increases.

Though campus activism continues today, best exemplified by the 2016 sit-ins of Whitmore that forced the University to commit to divest from fossil fuels, the University’s current land use policy regarding free speech stifles the passionate activism that makes UMass a bulwark of democracy.

For the last three years, student leaders and organizers in the Student Government Association and Center for Education Policy & Advocacy have been working to address the University’s free speech policy. Students argue this policy is unconstitutional, yet the University steadfastly insists its policies are in accord with all laws, as always.

The SGA and CEPA sought a democratic resolution to this issue by working with the administration to craft a free speech policy that protects and upholds, rather than restricts, free speech. CEPA has been working with the Attorney General of the SGA to update this policy. Given that Chancellor Subbaswamy has acknowledged that protests and demonstrations are “a point of pride” for this campus, we extend an offer to work with the Chancellor and the administration on a new, more open free speech policy for this campus—one that reflects the needs of the community with respect to student power.

We must remember the rhetoric of political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville, who describes nascent American democracy as an exceptional form of government which creates citizens rather than subjects. Should people be turned into subjects, willing to oblige their leaders no matter the circumstance, then it matters not that there are elections; it matters not that no one bears the title of monarch or dictator, because democracy is nonetheless dead. Moreover, Tocqueville contends that it is the right of citizens to form associations with each other that prevent tyranny from overtaking democracy. There are few associations as powerful as those formed during student demonstrations; such associations remind people that they are stronger together, and that the relations of power are always malleable. Our current free speech policy impedes such freedom of association.

We should remember Tocqueville as we work with our partners in the SGA to ensure the University adopts a free speech policy that includes an affirmation of students’ First Amendment rights and recognizes the critical role of organizing and activism both in our democracy as a whole and our campus community. We are citizens, not subjects—our free speech policy should reflect as much.

James Cordero is the External Communication Coordinator for CEPA

8 Comments

8 Responses to “Letter: UMass Amherst: a stifled beacon of democracy”

  1. John aimo on February 15th, 2018 12:46 am

    A policy by virtue of what it is controls. The only free speech policy is that there should be none.

    Students dont need the permission of the university to protest, they should just go out an do it. The reason the SGA has been trying to craft a change in policy for three years, something that could change in a matter of days or weeks is because the university doesn’t want it to.

    The best thing to do is to ignore the policy, to rebel against it. Don’t be weak-willed and allow the university to bully you.

    [Reply]

  2. Ed Cutting on February 15th, 2018 5:44 pm

    “…in 1997, students gathered…”
    .
    You have got to be kidding — the 1997 Goodell Trespass was an attempt to prevent UM employees from being paid. [Paychecks instead were printed in Hadley.] The Chancellor was fired for permitting it to continue for a week. And Amy Carter was arrested and prosecuted in 1986. The picketing code dates to 1990 if not earlier.
    .
    The examples Mr, Cordero cites were in violation of UMass rules — this was civil disobedience, not free speech. SGA & CEPA ought to look at the lawsuit filed — that’s the battle you ought to be fighting….

    [Reply]

  3. R on February 16th, 2018 1:21 am

    as has been pointed out – student protests have continued at umass regardless of the land use policy.

    with the umass gop pushing so hard on this issue lately, it smells to me like the same use of ‘free speech’ as other college republican and libertarian groups around the country lately, namely that fascist speakers should be brought in and the school should spend huge sums of money enforcing a hate rally mainly made up of outside agitators and shutting down much larger protests mostly made up of actual students.

    [Reply]

    Ed Cutting Reply:

    First & foremost, it’s not the “umass gop” that’s suing UMass — it’s not even Young Americans for Liberty but one of their members suing for his own personal free speech rights.
    Second, minorities have rights — everyone has rights — and I strongly encourage you to think about the consequences of changing that! Should only the majority be permitted to speak?
    “…and the school should spend huge sums of money enforcing a hate rally…”
    The law passed Congress as the Anti Klu Klux Klan Act of 1871 and the only difference between the Klan and people like you is that you have the benefit of a college education and hence should know better.
    “Fascism” involves the suppression of speech — of any kind. If you think someone else’s rally was “fascist”, then hold your own rally the next day and tell everyone that.
    .
    Silencing speech, no matter how “fascist” you may consider it, is itself fascist — and the scary thing is that I don’t think you realize that. Nor that in determining what speech is too “fascist” to be expressed, you are the real fascist.

    [Reply]

    R Reply:

    nope, not even remotely. while fascism may indeed “involve repression of speech” (as does at times, democracy, socialism, or any other government you can think of) this is far from a definition of fascism. in fact it’s a complete red herring – this kind of “i know you are but what am i?!” type of argument is more intentionally deceptive and confusing nonsense being put forth to muddy the waters by 1) people who literally advocate genocide and enslavement and 2) people who are far enough to the right and safe enough inside the fascist-defined white ‘community’ and see letting literal violent nazis off the leash to murder people in the streets and schools as a good thing, as long as it scares the left, immigrants, Muslims, ‘undesirables’.

    fascism is authoritarian, populist nationalism. it’s not just anyone who tries to stop a political event from happening because then it has no meaning as politics. it is of course not just a ‘different political opinion’ or a set of ideas but a mode of political activity that worships violence, relies on to grow its numbers, to terrorize those it views as inferior. violence is in a very real sense fascism’s whole point and way of being, violence that separates and evaluates people into a hierarchy based on their origins and identity. as such antifascist activity is not about stopping fascist speech as much as fascist activity, organizing and violence.

    right now, today, there are nazis rallying at U. of TN in knoxville with a huge police operation enforcing their presence (‘protecting their free speech’) on a campus community that resoundingly rejects it. last time these same scum rallied together they followed it up by attacking an interracial couple at a diner. not counter-protestors or anyone who had anything to do with it, literally just two people with different skin tones who loved each other and were trying to eat dinner.

    it is a fact that where fascists gather violence follows; this is their reason for gathering. educational institutions have no responsibility to enable that, and as far as what responsibilities they do towards ‘free speech’ (whatever that ultimately means!) arguably they have a far greater responsibility to students and staff to keep them safe from outside agitators organizing torch-wielding lynch mobs. to portray that as an issue of ‘free speech’ is pissing on my leg and telling me it’s raining.

    [Reply]

    NITZAKHON Reply:

    Don’t forget, Fascists are socialists.

    Ed Cutting, EdD Reply:

    …And the middle shall cease to hold…
    .
    Ever hear of the German Wiemar Republic? Or that Hitler actually won a basically-fair election? Yes, he did — his National Socialist party was actually elected.
    .
    Seems that the far left was viewed as even worse.
    .

  4. Stephanie Higgins on February 18th, 2018 5:19 pm

    Thank you for redefining what freedom of speech means for students who care about social justice. Protests do indeed still occur, but are restrained to the lunch hour (12-1pm). Freedom of speech but for only one hour of the day?

    The reason why this lawsuit matters for everyone is because yes, students can and do protest outside of this hour, but that comes with threat of expulsion due to the land use policy. Suggesting that students should ignore that concrete loss of education for the sake of making a statement is irresponsible and the makings of an unsustainable movement.

    [Reply]

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