Addressing the Claremont Letter on Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech

April 17, 2017 — Leave a comment

It appears that a letter co-signed by 20 students at one of the Claremont Colleges, Pomona College, is making the rounds on social media. The story goes that there was an attempt by a conservative speaker to speak at their school. Naturally being the intellectual fascists that they are, some student activists blocked entry into the venue and thus did not allow their fellow students to attend of their free volition. Due to receiving criticism from various local media, libertarian news organizations, and a letter from the school president on the subject of academic freedom and free expression, they penned this letter to the president of the college.

We, few of the Black students here at Pomona College and the Claremont Colleges, would like to address several of the points made in your ‘Academic Freedom and Free Speech’ email sent out to the entire student body on April 7, 2017 in response to a student protest against Heather Mac Donald’s talk at Claremont McKenna College’s (CMC) Athenaeum. We believe that given your position as President of this institution your voice holds significant weight in campus discourse. That power comes with immense responsibility, especially when you could dictate campus culture, climate, and the alleged mission of this institution. As President, you are charged with upholding principles of Pomona College. Though this institution as well as many others including this entire country, have been founded upon the oppression and degradation of marginalized bodies, it has a liability to protect the students that it serves. The paradox is that Pomona’s past is rooted in domination of marginalized peoples and communities and the student body has a significant population of students from these backgrounds. Your recent statement reveals where Pomona’s true intentions lie.

From the get go this letter is completely misinterpreting the powers and responsibilities that universities are placed with in regard to their students. Sure a university is responsible for your physical safety on campus but it is not responsible for your safety from hearing ideas you disagree with. Moreover we can see the typical go to language of choice in regard to American institutions by classifying them all as having been founded upon oppression and degradation which of course is simply not the case according to historical reference. Certainly some institutions can be classified under that historical narrative but we should be far more nuanced by differentiating based on objective evidence and not conjecture. In regard to Claremont specifically there is no evidence of oppression or degradation.

Free speech, a right many freedom movements have fought for, has recently become a tool appropriated by hegemonic institutions. It has not just empowered students from marginalized backgrounds to voice their qualms and criticize aspects of the institution, but it has given those who seek to perpetuate systems of domination a platform to project their bigotry. Thus, if “our mission is founded upon the discovery of truth,” how does free speech uphold that value? The notion of discourse, when it comes to discussions about experiences and identities, deters the ‘Columbusing’ of established realities and truths (coded as ‘intellectual inquiry’) that the institution promotes. Pomona cannot have its cake and eat it, too. Either you support students of marginalized identities, particularly Black students, or leave us to protect and organize for our communities without the impositions of your patronization, without your binary respectability politics, and without your monolithic perceptions of protest and organizing. In addition, non-Black individuals do not have the right to prescribe how Black people respond to anti-Blackness.

Here is where you see the flaw in their reasoning as they attempt to turn the discussion of free speech into an all or nothing affair. Unfortunately for them most people are not foolish enough to succumb to that line of thinking especially the educated. It is true that freedom of speech can be utilized by people you agree with and people you disagree with. The question then is do you truly support the universality for the right of free speech or simply support freedom of speech for your personal gain? It appears for these students the choice is the latter. While true that non-black individuals can’t enforce how blacks respond to certain situations they are allowed to comment and bring in their perspective to the discourse. The idea that black individuals are above reproach on issues concerning the black community is utter nonsense. Nobody is above reproach. The underlying current throughout this article is pretty clear: power. They don’t like that others can use power they perceive to be theirs alone and thus they believe that power ought to be removed by any means. Additionally freedom of speech does far more to uphold the discovery of truth than these student’s idea of a totalitarian reign over free expression. How can what you believe be proven to be truth unless it goes through the crucible of objective reasoning and public discourse?

Your statement contains unnuanced views surrounding the academy and a belief in searching for some venerated truth. Historically, white supremacy has venerated the idea of objectivity, and wielded a dichotomy of ‘subjectivity vs. objectivity’ as a means of silencing oppressed peoples. The idea that there is a single truth–’the Truth’–is a construct of the Euro-West that is deeply rooted in the Enlightenment, which was a movement that also described Black and Brown people as both subhuman and impervious to pain. This construction is a myth and white supremacy, imperialism, colonization, capitalism, and the United States of America are all of its progeny. The idea that the truth is an entity for which we must search, in matters that endanger our abilities to exist in open spaces, is an attempt to silence oppressed peoples. We, Black students, exist with a myriad of different identities. We are queer, trans, differently-abled, poor/low-income, undocumented, Muslim, first-generation and/or immigrant, and positioned in different spaces across Africa and the African diaspora. The idea that we must subject ourselves routinely to the hate speech of fascists who want for us not to exist plays on the same Eurocentric constructs that believed Black people to be impervious to pain and apathetic to the brutal and violent conditions of white supremacy.

Firstly the whole concept of white supremacy is a sham in itself. I constantly see people drone on about white supremacy but are unable to articulate specific instances and institutions who perpetuate this so called white supremacy. It appears these students fall into that category. The concepts of subjectivity vs objectivity are not utilized to oppress people but to differentiate between things that are subjective (influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions) and objective (not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts). It is pertinent when wanting to hold dialogue and discourse that the two be distinguished. Secondarily it appears these students are unable to grasp the ways the Enlightenment,  a period that advanced the ideals of liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state, has been beneficial in their lives. This simply appears to be a case of the students either not knowing history very well or just not appreciating it. I would guess both.

The idea that the search for this truth involves entertaining Heather Mac Donald’s hate speech is illogical. If engaged, Heather Mac Donald would not be debating on mere difference of opinion, but the right of Black people to exist. Heather Mac Donald is a fascist, a white supremacist, a warhawk, a transphobe, a queerphobe, a classist, and ignorant of interlocking systems of domination that produce the lethal conditions under which oppressed peoples are forced to live. Why are you, and other persons in positions of power at these institutions, protecting a fascist and her hate speech and not students that are directly affected by her presence?Advocating for white supremacy and giving white supremacists platforms wherefrom their toxic and deadly illogic may be disseminated is condoning violence against Black people. Heather Mac Donald does not have the right to an audience at the Athenaeum, a private venue wherefrom she received compensation. Dictating and condemning non-respectable forms of protest while parroting the phrase that “protest has a celebrated” place on campus is contradictory at best and anti-Black at worst.This is not an argument rooted in Heather’s loss of “free speech” or academic freedom. She is a well-known public figure, her views are well documented. Rather, our praxis is focused on not allowing her anti-Black platform to be legitimized in front of an audience, which she does not have the right to. Engaging with her, a white supremacist fascist supporter of the police state, is a form of violence.Protest that doesn’t disrupt the status quo is benign and doesn’t function to overthrow systems of oppression, which is the ultimate goal.

Cue the long list of pejorative names in an attempt to discredit a person and besmirch their character. Nothing about Ms. MacDonald has led me to believe she desires black people to not exist. And no, disagreeing and not liking black lives matter is not the same as not liking black people. Furthermore, Ms. MacDonald appears to be an educated individual who is capable of laying out her platform and positions, some of which I disagree with. However, she is no fascist. We do a far greater disservice to black people when we try to equate speakers as condoning violence when no violent ideas are being discussed. Are blacks simply not capable in the eyes of these 20 students of receiving speakers critical of black activist organizations? I fear its not that blacks are not capable but that these students are not capable of refuting MacDonald’s ideas.

To conclude our statement, we invite you to respond to this email by Tuesday, April 18, 2017 at 4:07pm (since we have more energy to expend on the frivolity of this institution and not Black lives). Also, we demand a revised email sent to the entire student body, faculty, and staff by Thursday, April 20, 2017, apologizing for the previous patronizing statement, enforcing that Pomona College does not tolerate hate speech and speech that projects violence onto the bodies of its marginalized students and oppressed peoples, especially Black students who straddle the intersection of marginalized identities, and explaining the steps the institution will take and the resources it will allocate to protect the aforementioned students. We also demand that Pomona College and the Claremont University Consortium entities take action against the Claremont Independent editorial staff (http://claremontindependent.com/meet-the-staff/) for its continual perpetuation of hate speech, anti-Blackness, and intimidation toward students of marginalized backgrounds. Provided that the Claremont Independent releases the identity of students involved with this letter and such students begin to receive threats and hate mail, we demand that this institution and its constituents take legal action against members of the Claremont Independent involved with the editing and publication process as well as disciplinary action, such as expulsion on the grounds of endangering the wellbeing of others.

Making demands appears to be all these students are good for. It wouldn’t surprise in the slightest that these students are vastly over-represented in the humanities departments and not in STEM majors. I cannot fathom what is going on in their minds that leads them to not only call on students to be punished for writing in a news publication but that the publication essentially be censored permanently. This is not the America that I nor most I believe desire for everyone. Like they said you cannot have your cake and eat it too. You cannot demand that everyone be treated equally under the law but desire special benefits for yourself. You cannot demand that your speech not be silenced but desire others to be silenced. This kind of barbarism appears all too common on the progressive side of the political sphere. The best way to combat it is by not giving in to their demands and by not letting them gain power by intimidation. If you give in then you give them cause to continue their charade of fighting a mythical white supremacy and doubling down on identity politics.

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