Letter: Charlie Hebdo and free speech at Towson

By: Alex Woodfin, Senior

I’m writing this from Avignon, France, as a foreigner among 66 million French nationals in grief over the horrific attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

Four million people (30,000 in my town alone) participated in peaceful marches on Jan. 11, bringing to life what one of the greatest writers in French history wrote in 1770: “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.”

The events surrounding the attacks make it abundantly clear that two hundred and fifty years later, the French do not take rights lightly. American and French political philosophies of rights both share influences from Thomas Jefferson, which made me think about how free speech is treated in America, and especially at Towson.

After a closer look at our speech codes, I’m disheartened to share my conclusion: Charlie Hebdo would not be allowed to exist for even a day at Towson University.

While our speech codes may be well intended, we do not have the right to chalk with “offensive language.” Additionally, we can be punished for speech that “inflict[s] mental or emotional distress upon a person,” whatever that actually means in practice—or “disparage[s]” another person’s “race, religion, sex, creed, sexual orientation, age, national origin or disability.”

Like a wide range of social and political commentary, Charlie Hebdo wouldn’t be able to exist at Towson. It is considered wildly offensive by many religious groups. Extremists were distressed to the point of mortal anger by Charlie Hebdo’s disparaging depictions of the prophet (it was also extremists who firebombed the publication’s offices in 2011). Charlie Hebdo is satirical and breathtakingly politically incorrect, but the French government has not once banned the publication.

However, imagine, if you dare, Towson’s speech policies made into law by the French government. Charlie Hebdo would have vanished years ago. Words like “offensive” are very, very dangerous pivot points when they regulate speech, which is why I wrote an entire op-ed about that term last January.

One day, if enough people decide that what you have to say is offensive, your words could be banned. Your activism would be washed from sidewalks (at least, where you still have the right to chalk). Your thoughts, the precious product of your mind’s work, deemed unworthy; and your words condemned and ordered away until public opinion changes.

Does this bother you? Would you like to peacefully demonstrate on your very own campus, like the four-million French who demonstrated on their very own soil? You will need to ask for permission from the university administration for that, along with any other kind of “expressive activity.”

If you would like to claim that the intellectual environment of an institution of higher learning should not be the same as that of the real world, I invite you to reread that assertion until its irony is unforgettably clear.

The conversation about free speech in the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo involves millions, of all nationalities, languages, and political affiliations. We, along with the French, are extraordinarily fortunate to have Constitutions that protect free speech. However, Towson students are in a unique situation to be studying in a pocket of land that does not protect free speech. In fact, several of our codes are directly in opposition to Supreme Court decisions made within most of our lifetimes.

Now is the perfect time to talk about how Towson can become more open to free speech. I do not mean paying lip service to diversity and going on our jolly ways. We do that already. I’m talking about how we demand new and better policies — policies that “respect and enhance the freedom of others,” as Nelson Mandela once said.

“But Alexandra — what if we remove the word ‘offensive’ from the code, and people start spreading awful things? They’ll be unstoppable!”

Have you forgotten the characteristics of a student who attends Towson University? Passionate? Warm? Open-hearted? Dynamic? World-minded? Have you forgotten the “Be the Change Rally” in 2013, in which hundreds peacefully demonstrated to say something when they saw something?

In that rally, the Towson student body was as much a supporter of rights as the nation of France.

In day-to-day affairs and matters of policy, however, Towson University is not a full supporter of student rights concerning free speech.

When I graduate in five months, I want to be proud to my core to have studied here. Until the codes change, however, there will be a twinge in my stomach when I admit that I studied at a school that says one thing, and practices another.

By not rigorously and persistently questioning Towson’s current speech codes, we are not enhancing the freedom of others.

I’ll leave you with the last and most chilling line of a poem that has been etched in my brain since I was a child:

“Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”


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