May 23, 2003

Panel reviews issue of dissent in wartime

A force currently dictating national discourse was itself corralled into question Wednesday afternoon when a panel of academics and students addressed the issue of "Dissent in Wartime."

The event wrestled with the issues of freedom of speech, the maintenance of a civil atmosphere, and the effects of limiting critical perspectives during wartime, when a premium is placed both on the free expression of ideas and, conversely, the need to consolidate support by limiting dissention.

Sponsored by the Hillel Civility Project, the event hoped to explore divergent perspectives on the limits of freedom of speech by including both established academics and students, according to Martha Nussbaum, chair of the Civility project and professor in the Law School.

The program, which drew an afternoon crowd of about 30, began with commentary about the nationwide dynamic of wartime speech from law professor Geoffrey Stone and U.S. appellate court judge Richard Posner. It was later brought closer to home with a student panel, which discussed how the war has affected the campus-wide arena of discourse.

Stone, the first panel speaker, framed the discussion by explaining why the wartime period hyperbolizes the stake of free speech.

He said that patriotism often runs rampant during war, polarizing discourse, especially that which is critical of the government. The effect of this, Stone said, is that those who dissent often have to magnify their voices to be heard.

"These are issues of life and death," Stone said. "If you believe it is without moral or political justification, can you sit by and watch?"

With this explanation of how war charges the issue of free speech, Stone argued that since it is a "healthy" part of a democracy, the government must demonstrate a specific expression to be destructive before limiting it.

Posner presented a different view, allowing for "some degree" of government censorship to be authorized during wartime, saying that the precedent to limit free speech has already been set by defamation and copyright laws.

"The old protections tend to spring back," Posner said. "It's not a ratchet. You're not going to carry restrictions back to peacetime."

Posner pointed to a problem with the nature of dissent in war time, that opposition is often "very simplistic" and has "very little foundation of knowledge of what is going on."

This polarization was reflected in the comments of the student speakers, whose talks touched on disappointing aspects of the University community ranging from the de-legitimization of certain viewpoints to the uncompromising stances of others.

According to third-year in the College Miriam Gedwiser, "blind dissenters" don't leave room for discussion to question the relationship between being a citizen and not supporting the government. "There's so much baggage behind every position that it's almost impossible - practically and ideologically - to start out at a neutral place," Gedwiser said.

Her criticism was similar to that of Tala Manassah, a fourth-year in the College, who spoke about the tendency to stereotype. She said that the anti-intellectual atmosphere of "you're either with us or you're against us" that has developed since September 11 has "trickled down" to the University. "Students who speak against the status quo should be met with reasonable arguments rather than marginalization or silencing," she said.

The student panel also included Blythe Dorn, a graduate student of English, and Joshua Steinman, a first-year in the College.