EDITORIALS

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January 13, 2009

Sign language

To what extent should the University’s commitment to free and unfettered discourse be upheld in the face of offensive statements?

Given the history of the Israeli­–Palestinian conflict and the views of the invited speakers, the heated student response to last Thursday’s panel discussion on Gaza should not have come as a complete surprise. But lost in the debate was a second, also important question: To what extent should the University’s commitment to free and unfettered discourse be upheld in the face of offensive statements?

Before the talks began, an audience member unaffiliated with the University unveiled a large banner featuring a swastika, crosses, and a Star of David imposed over the American flag, the implicit argument of the sign being that Israel’s recent military actions resemble those of Nazi Germany. ORCSA Director Sharlene Holly, upon being told of the sign, ordered it removed, later telling the Maroon that a sign of that size is a safety risk in case of fire.

This may be the case. But it’s worth wondering whether a smaller sign with the same symbols would have—or should have—been removed.

The use of the swastika in this instance was understandably offensive. However, silencing political protest simply because many attendees would find it offensive is insufficient justification. One person’s obviously offensive symbology is another’s poignant political truth. To be sure, there are reasonable arguments for banning some speech, such as the presence of explicit threats or the incitement to violence. But opinions are not invalid merely because they are offensive.

The U of C prides itself on being a forum for all ideas, controversial or not. To ensure a truly open academic community, the University must be consistent in its treatment of all viewpoints, even if at times it makes us uncomfortable. If there’s one important lesson from a U of C education, it’s that arguments should be confronted rather than suppressed.

The Maroon Editorial Board consists of the Editor-in-Chief, Viewpoints Editors, and two additional Editorial Board members.