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ESC Debates The Limits To Free Speech

Dark wings, dark words.

Each week, rain or shine, healthy or sick, snow or drought, ESC Bureau Chief Finn Klauber reports on Engineer Student Council’s activities. For the first time in multiple weeks, ESC actually had an open discussion section—and, boy, was it a doozy. 

As most people at Columbia are aware, Lerner Hall experienced a number of protests last Tuesday night due to the speech of the infamous Tommy Robinson, co-founder and previous leader of the English Defence League. While Columbia reiterated its policies that peaceful protest is entirely within the realm of acceptable behaviour, the administration also accosted protesters physically disrupting the event, collecting UNIs and serving the offending students with notices of rules violations. In the wake of the protest and drama surrounding Robinson’s speech, ESC internally wrote, voted upon, and approved their own official statement regarding the various incidents. However, as VP Policy Zoha Qamar recalled before opening this week’s discussion topic, VP Student Life Ben Barton—among others—privately told VP Qamar that he had issues with the statement. As a result, VP Qamar scrapped the entire official statement until after ESC could discuss the various incidents as a general body.

Both VP Barton and 2019 Representative Asher Goldfinger described how the discarded ESC statement lacked any significance or meaning. Specifically, Goldfinger claimed that the “main part of the statement is something that was in our constitution,” and that any ESC statement “should be something new and meaningful.” Barton, on a slightly different note, criticized the discarded statement on grounds that “it’s totally fine to take stances on an issue.” Barton advocated that “all future statements from ESC should be more divisive,” and that such statements “shouldn’t be non-partisan.” In response, VP Qamar attempted to address how these issues were actually raised in the process of writing and approving the original drafted statement—namely, that “you should publicly disagree if you want to disagree.” VP Barton answered that “maybe people didn’t want to themselves to seem to disagree with the language” of the statement, essentially claiming that nobody would stand out alone and disagree with the apparently milquetoast statement for fear of being identified as supporting or condemning the statement’s diction.

2019 Representatives Walker Magrath and Montana St. Pierre approached the issue of publishing the draft statement from a more objective perspective. Magrath “considered the statement for a long time” and agreed with “everything else in the statement except [the words] ‘condemn speech.'” He noted that “we should take into account our constituents which includes CUCR,” while accepting that “we should be able to disagree with ideologies.” That is, Magrath specifically disagreed with putting out a statement which condemns in any way “speech,” asking the other members of ESC to remember that their constituents include students who may hold these social views. In fact, he later stated that “millions of people hold these views,” claiming that “we’re sheltered from that because we go to a liberal school.” St. Pierre agreed fully with Magrath, referencing the recent University Senate statement on academic freedom. While ESC “can always condemn hateful speech,” St. Pierre emphasized that ESC cannot condemn “free speech.” Just as Magrath stated before, St. Pierre emphasized how “we especially have to be careful with that since we represent an academic constituency,” explaining that “we should not be hasty with our statements.” St. Pierre later also noted that ESC needs to “be careful about differentiating between encouraging people to protest and [encouraging them] to disrupt university events,” specifically referencing how activists physically disrupt classes taught by Executive Vice President Suzanne Goldberg.

VP Qamar responded to the concerns of Magrath and St. Pierre, delineating how “being able to speak and not having retribution from the federal government is not the same as a group bringing a troll speaker.” She noted how she was reading up on Robinson’s writings and ideology, and claimed that “this [speech] specifically is arguably a form of hate speech,” and that “in a way it’s creating a parallel that hate speech is a system that perpetuates violence.” VP Barton totally agreed that “CUCR brought in a troll speaker” and that there are “tons of speakers that would add more value than Tommy Robinson.” Nevertheless, he asked, “if we draw lines where do we draw them?” In this specific case, perhaps, it is easy to define the speech as “pretty hateful discourse,” but the lines are much more blurred with speakers less infamous than Tommy Robinson. VP Qamar responded by emphasizing the impossibility in drawing a fixed line, claiming that “[it is ESC’s] responsibility to make a judgement call case-by-case.” She does agree with Barton, however, in that “we can take stances and we should when things seem right or wrong.”

Goldfinger agreed with Barton and, referring to a point made by University Senator Izzet Kebudi (regarding former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) that “such speakers have been brought in to global centers and the World Leaders Forum,” advocated that “bringing people in for a different opinion is extremely valuable.” Goldfinger branched off from this point, however, arguing that “a majority [of students] knew he was a troll…and [CUCR] tried to evoke a response.” He argued that releasing a statement plays into this “trolling,” claiming that he “wouldn’t have heard of the event if it weren’t for the protest.” As such, Goldfinger raised the possibility of not releasing a statement at all—to “just ignore it.” VP Qamar, in a direct response, retorted that Robinson was “personally violent to [the protestors’] identity,” and that “telling them to ignore it is not in the bounds of all of us.”

President Aida Lu entered the conversation at this point to respond to a previous speech recommending “only bringing people whose opinions are based in facts.” President Lu agreed that there is a different gravity to a speech by Tommy Robinson than to a talk with a world leader, but that “sometimes I think that we need to think about how we can be involved in the discourse.” In these terms, she advocates for releasing a statement, as doing such “is a way to promote that discourse so that we can bring an end to such a message.”

By this point in the discussion, the end of the meeting had already elapsed by nearly thirty minutes. Despite passing over the meeting end, very little was actually accomplished. While various members expressed their views regarding writing an official statement on the Tommy Robinson event, few agreed fully on whether the statement should address the contents of the event itself or whether the statement should refer to Columbia punishing the protestors who disrupted the event. Fewer still agreed on the limits to free speech, the responsibilities of ESC in such incidents, or ESC’s ability to objectively address such issues. Perhaps 2019 Representative Asher Goldfinger forwarded the most revolutionary suggestion in my time observing ESC; to ignore CUCR’s baiting and trolling by not releasing a statement. Unfortunately, it seems extremely unlikely that ESC will pay much attention to this suggestion.


  • VP Qamar updated ESC on the results of the one week extension to the tampon/pad pilot program. The supplies in the women’s bathrooms in Mudd, Hamilton, and NoCo were almost entirely used each day. She will be meeting soon with administrators to shift the financial and logistical cost from the student body to the administration.
  • VP Qamar also reported that the COÖP expansion proposal from last year was not noticed whatsoever by Columbia’s administration. As such, she will be recollecting the information and data regarding the proposed expansion from the leader(s) of COÖP. This would allow, in a certain number of years, every person at Columbia who wants to participate in COÖP to do so.
  • The Quality of Life survey is being released on Wednesday. Please, please fill it out, as the data from this survey are the only significant data representative of a majority of Columbia’s student body.
  • Regarding the “dog study break” being planned by the 2020 council members, an ESC member asked “Are any of those doggos puppers?” The 2020 representatives responded “No, they’re woofers.”
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  • Crybullies says:

    @Crybullies Nobody can define hate speech. It is entirely subjective. The very same argument against letting people speak were used to silence marginalized communities for hundreds of years.
    Nobody should have the power to decide what people can say unless the statement can be directly, specifically tied to a specific lawless action. Otherwise, we have a pendulum of one ideology gaining power and silencing people and then a swing to the other side.

    Let people speak. Nobody died or was injured in any way because Tommy Robinson was here.

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