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The Columbia Political Union Debates Freedom of Speech

Last night, the Columbia Political Union hosted a debate on the topic of freedom of speech at Columbia. Guest writer Ufon Umanah recounts the main points of each debater, and a brief summary of the main conflicts the event touched on as a whole.

The difficulty of having a debate on freedom of speech at Columbia boils down to the fact that, as expressed by Columbia University Democrats Lead Activist Shrayan Shetty, everyone believes in freedom of speech at a fundamental level, but has different ideas of what free speech looks like. Yesterday’s audience members listened first to structured debate on how free speech should affect decisions online and then a less structured debate on free speech at Columbia. These debaters presented five visions of what freedom of speech should look like.

The Roosevelt Institute

President of the Roosevelt Institute Adem Sengal, CC ’18, true to the policy-oriented nature of the non-partisan progressive think-tank, argued on an abstract level that legal precedent on freedom of speech should be followed. This approach leans heavily on (some) trust of government institutions. Sengal argued that, while private companies such as Facebook currently have the right to kick anyone off their platform, it would be better for the government to have more oversight over the internet because the government, unlike those companies, are accountable to the people. In terms of how the government would then regulate various forms of harassment, Sengal argued that the specifics of the case and the likelihood of the threat would have to be accounted for. This approach did mean that minorities may have to put up with a lot of hurtful language and harassment on the internet as they do face-to-face. While doxing represents a clear violation of privacy, he said, many issues would be too hard to define and litigate.

Columbia University Libertarians

President of the Columbia University Libertarians Meredith Dubree, CC ’17, pointed out that the First Amendment starts with “Congress shall make no law” to protect our rights from the government – including the right to be a terrible person. After all, the ACLU says that for free speech to be available for all, it must be available for the most unpopular. For Dubree, this means despite her personal experience with the “nasty Facebook messages” which seem commonplace for women on the internet, the government doesn’t have a right to ban terrible people. Corporations, however, despite her mistrust, are free to ban who they want as private entities. Dubree expressed the belief that actable threats and doxing, the publishing of private identifiable information on the internet, should be illegal.

International Socialist Organization

Representing the International Socialist Organization, Jonah Ben Avraham, CC, argued that “[the socialist] tradition stands” in protecting freedom of speech, and has since the beginning of the movement. Governments, in contrast, have a rich history of speaking of free speech and then moving to censor speech, especially the speech of socialists. Avraham argued that, as a revolutionary socialist, he has a vested interest in making sure revolutionary politics aren’t criminalized; he said that the government has a vested interest in criminalizing that speech, and therefore it’s problematic for government to be the arbiter of what constitutes protected and unprotected speech. It is just as problematic for corporations to decide what speech does or does not deserve to be banned, especially in the context of union organization. Ultimately, he argued, people need the right to organize their own online communities and therefore their own definitions separate from those vested interests of capital.

Columbia University College Republicans

Representing the Columbia University College Republicans, Peter Jacob Luning Prak, SEAS ’17, argued that all rights are worthless without freedom of speech, and that the fact that party control of government changes as evident in the last couple of elections should give both sides motivation to maximize freedom from the government. Prak argued that harassment and threats are two separate terms. While threats, particularly credible threats, were illegal, what constitutes harassment in real life can’t be blocked online, since nobody has the right to someone thinking well of them. One can say stupid things on Twitter, but can’t hack a website to release nudes of a target. Prak conceded early on that there may be cases in which certain groups might be easier to target, and by that justification they may deserve extra protection.

Columbia University Democrats

Lead Activist Shrayan Shetty, CC ’19, argued on an abstract level that since freedom of speech makes progressive change, he and his fellow liberals will always rally to its defense. They will however, speak out against bigotry, and he emphasized that his quarrel was not with the right of bigots to speak, but of the fact they are bigots. Shetty expressed strong belief in the rule of law, arguing that while the system is always improving, they must be able to act on clear, specific threats like against Jewish synagogues. The same belief in the possibilities of an imperfect system extends to the internet, where he argues that Facebook and other companies should do what they see fit to maintain their communities. To this end, Shetty believes that the problem with the internet is with anonymity and the fact that people aren’t accountable for their actions and therefore cannot face consequences for speech that would have consequences in the real world.

And What of Columbia, You Ask?

Shifting from internet policy to Columbia policy proved difficult, especially considering the limited amount of time remaining. The moderator, Vice President of the Columbia Political Union Shreya Sunderram, BC ’19, introduced the examples of Milo’s (dis)invitation to Columbia and the suspension of the wrestling team as topic starters.

Dubree said she was disgusted by the wrestling team, but argued that their expulsion over private conversation would be problematic for the community. Avraham fired back that Columbia needed to dismantle the environment that spawned the racist bile, but that Columbia’s role would always be problematic as a racist institution. Sengal retorted that it’s unreasonable to say Columbia is inherently racist and at the same time petition it to be less racist. Rather, Sengal would have preferred the university institute cultural sensitivity training and other more direct action. Avraham responded by listing out all the ways Columbia was still complicit in oppression, which in his view included Manhattanville, Israeli companies, and investments in oil and gas. Shetty argued that this approach to looking at Columbia would in the end hurt more people than it would help, whereas Avraham argued that his focus was more on throwing out university governance by the trustees, who he argued have stakes in direct conflict with the lives of people on campus.

As the floor opened, a socialist in the tiny crowd argued that, while steps can be taken to make the university more responsive, ultimately private control of Columbia would have to be abolished. Prak countered by saying that the abolition of private capital did not lead to a post-racial Cuba, and that by the logic presented by ISO, we as students are racist by benefitting from Columbia. To this, another student in the crowd responded, “Words just come out of that mouth of yours,” and emphasized that the point of a Columbia education was to question everything so that the society improves. The debate then moved to the topic of Prof. Joseph Masaad and the question of whether racist professors should be allowed to teach at universities for the last few minutes before the event concluded.

Of course, freedom of speech is complicated, and it wasn’t as if these five speakers were going to solve the issue that night. But these philosophies have implications outside NoCo. Even as columbia buy sell memes continues to have controversial, price-gouged products, and the internet continues to be the Wild West of the law, issues will become more and more intermediate. These conversations will matter in a way that may not be inherent as rest of the school deals with other, seemingly more pressing controversies.

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