We all have a right to be offensive. It’s a fundamental, constitutional right, just as we have the right to express our religion or not be tortured in prison. We also have the right to protest when someone offends us.
Let me begin this by putting one basic fact on the table: I don’t know the exact details about the Confederate flag incident that took place at Bryn Mawr. Most of the information I’ve heard has been second hand and I never witnessed the display of the flag.
I strongly condemn the display of such a flag. Displaying the Confederate flag evokes a terrible history of slavery, racial oppression and evokes images of a society I hope will one day be a thing of the past. Simply put, displaying the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia is offensive (unless you’re a Civil War history buff).
This brings me to my point: The women who displayed that flag had the right to do so, regardless of whether it was offensive. While I do not wish to accuse Bryn Mawr of suppressing student voices, institutions of higher learning like Bryn Mawr and Haverford have a duty to protect all voices, with the exception of legally defined hate speech. What I fear is a cleansing of voices, a community in which only speech deemed “satisfactory” or “not offensive” is permitted by the institution. While I do not think this level of censorship has occurred yet, I have serious concerns about how protected some voices are.
Let’s face it: Haverford and Bryn Mawr are politically liberal campuses. One might call them extremely liberal. What is deemed to be “offensive” or “inappropriate” is done so with an extremely skewed political perspective. And while many will argue that Bryn Mawr and Haverford are private institutions and thus can collectively choose which voices are deemed acceptable, it is my argument that Haverford and Bryn Mawr must actively protect all voices. In a sense, Haverford and Bryn Mawr should follow the norms of the First Amendment.
The United States Supreme Court has dealt with offensive language before in their iconic case Texas vs. Johnson. Funny enough, this case involved another flag – the American flag – and a citizen’s decision to burn it. Gregory Lee Johnson, a liberal activist protesting at the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, burned a flag in front of the Convention Center in protest of President Ronald Reagan’s policies. Dallas police arrested Johnson. The State of Texas convicted him, citing a law that criminalizes expression that may cause serious offence. The case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 that Johnson’s actions were protected speech under the First Amendment.
Let us remember that Gregory Lee Johnson was a liberal protester expressing views that many Americans find extremely offensive: the burning of the national flag. Yet his speech was protected. The same rules should apply for the display of the Confederate flag on Bryn Mawr or Haverford’s campus. The women have a right to display their offensive language, just as we have a right to protest their detestable behavior.
To revoke either party’s right to express their perspective would detract from the greater intellectual health of the Colleges. While banning Confederate flags from campus may seem logical, because such expression is offensive, the long-term effects could be devastating. What if I were to sit on Founder’s Green with a sign saying, “Fetuses have rights too!” This is speech that could be considered offensive, yet it is also a valuable perspective for the College to have. The point of education is to broaden perspective, not to select which perspectives suit our fancy.
I applaud the Bryn Mawr students who utilized their right to protest this symbol of racism on campus. I applaud those who have planned a campus discussion at Haverford, scheduled for October 2nd. The point I make is that we should all be allowed to have our voices heard, be they offensive or not.