Why ‘Tyranny’ of the Majority At Haverford is not Silencing Free Speech

Free speech is not being impeded at Haverford College through the Social Honor Code or its implementation. I am sorry that the author feels that unpopular opinions are being silenced and the people with these opinions are being discriminated against, but that is not the case. I wish I could stop this article here, but I can’t, because the article is riddled with egregious claims and assumptions about Haverford, the Honor Code, and the community’s role in these institutions. Other students have already responded to this article in comments online, as well as in The Clerk, such as Kevin Liao’s letter to the editor. I wanted to echo some of these well-articulated responses and add some additional points. Namely, I want to speak to claims made throughout the article, such as bringing up genocide as a point of comparison to the “Majority reality” at Haverford (1), or the fact that that the author “can’t agree” with President Tritton that our community standards are indeed our Honor Code. These points are problematic, untrue, and their connotations go critically unaddressed.

To begin with, the use of Supreme Court (2) cases as the basis of and solution to the argument is inappropriate on multiple levels. Besides the nature of these cases as being inappropriate evidence, the applicability of Supreme Court cases to Haverford is moot. We are in the U.S. and we follow U.S. laws, but Haverford College is a private institution and intentional community. We are not a nation and thus through this (self-) selecting process of choosing to be at Haverford College, we implicitly subscribe to the norms and values in this community.

Additionally, civil law is inherently made up of U.S. norms. As the writer mentions when using the Plessy v. Ferguson case, the ruling set a precedent of “injustice.” Why should we use the U.S. Supreme Court as a barometer to set up our own community standards if the writer even deems the Court as fallible and unjust in some cases? To ensure we are not subject to the fallibilities of the court, shouldn’t we have our own dynamic community values be the standard instead…. Oh wait, we do.

This is where there is a fundamental distinction between the author’s argument and my interpretation of the validity of the Supreme Court. I think the U.S. Supreme Court’s current precedent for free speech does not address current social, political, racial, economic, and gendered realities, which explicitly and implicitly impede free speech for many non-white male Protestants. While it is purported we are equal in a court of law, this is neither true, nor is the fact that Haverford College, or most of the world, operates in a courtroom. All of our free speech is limited implicitly and structurally by our community norms, or it is even explicitly limited when some Black Lives Matter protestors are not even given a chance to be protected to protest and express their free speech. These are matters of unconstitutionality, but also to be fair, this is not the type of speech that is brought up in the article. The author is more concerned with ‘viewpoint discrimination’ (so concerned they mention it 7 times).

By and large, free speech law is only invoked as being violated when people want to express something egregious (i.e. white people wanting to say the n-word so bad. WHY?)  I am a white woman writing a response to an article which is coming from a place a extreme privilege, where uncontextualized free speech is the highest attainable goal. I have very little first hand experience with structural or explicit discrimination at Haverford, but I listen to the people who do experience this daily. The Social Code isn’t designed to protect the ability to have an unpopular opinion – it is designed to hold those who violate our community standards accountable and prevent discrimination and harassment from existing on campus. This type of discrimination is based upon substantive matters of a person’s identity, not an unpopular opinion, and thus necessitates protection. Unpopular opinions, if they are left at opinions, can not fundamentally be subject to Honor Council proceedings since it is not an opinion alone which would violate the Code. It would be a violation and taken to Council if the opinion operates in tandem with an act of violence, harassment, and discrimination. It is an opinion with discrimination (3) that is fundamentally against the Honor Code since the Code is made up of “community standards” (4).

This brings me to my second point: that we at Haverford College are fundamentally an intentional community of normative values which define us. The Code aims to protect those who are not protected in the broader world. We hold ourselves to a higher standards which strives to value mental, emotional, and physical safety more than a more nebulous concept of free speech. Of course everyone should strive to challenge our ideas and conceptions of the world through dialogue. In my opinion, this exchange of ideas can only happen if the people who typically yell that we should protect free speech take a second to advocate for listening as well. Listening has provided me with much more meaningful experiences, such as We Speak and Speak Out. A fundamental discovery during my time at Haverford is finding the painful beauty that can emerge out of the silence. Unfortunately, not all interactions at Haverford can happen after a moment of silence, a realigned space, and thoughtful comments. No matter how unpopular these declarations are, there can at least be a dialogue about it. This is not without a qualifier, that not all unpopular opinions are created equally.

Sometimes “unpopular” ideas are entrenched in “discrimination and harassment, including, but not limited to, acts of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, ableism, discrimination based on religion or political ideology, and discrimination based on national origin or English capability are devoid of respect and therefore, by definition, violate this Code.” (Haverford Honor Council 2016 §3.04(2)). Sometimes these unpopular opinions are not. Either way, this section of the code should be viewed as a point of learning and growth, instead of a chance for viewpoint discrimination by the ideological majority. 

What would be great for the writer of the original piece to do, would be to identify some topics which would constitute an unpopular opinion which is worthy of defense. I am hesitant to be gung-ho for free speech, because for the majority of cases, the people who are arguing for it are white males and don’t have to live an embodied reality of discrimination on a structural and personal level daily. Most people have to confront their identity on a daily level. Unfortunately,  during this time in political history, this is not a pleasant confrontation of lived embodied reality. I know for myself, I am tired of hearing the opinion that women do not deserve equal pay for equal work or the feeling that sexist attitudes are now given a free pass since the language which our President uses is entrenched in the aforementioned language.

We live embodied realities that impact our viewpoints, our logic, our reason. We cannot exist politically outside of our bodies. That is why I am making my identity explicit, since my opinion comes from my reality. I am afforded the luxury of living in a country where neither I nor my ancestors, have been systematically enslaved, methodically discriminated against, and or subject to the vast majority of harassments in this country. So many people face life-threatening,  emotionally and mentally taxing, or merely disrespectful impediments to their lived reality on a daily basis. I want Haverford College to be a place where those who are actually discriminated against to have some sort of respite, and that’s what the Code is trying to do. If that means one’s “unpopular” opinion will be critiqued because the Honor Code strives to hold up the voices of those who may not be valued outside of our community, and it is found that the opinion is worthy of critique, then that is a reality one has to face. My best is guess, it is with a minutia of the unpleasantness that so many people face to a much direr degree.

My third point is the ignorance associated with your knowledge of how the Honor Council Trial procedure actually works. For that, Canada should talk to his HCO’s and ask them to hold more sessions. This is representative of issues brought up  at Plenary, for people’s actual knowledge and engagement with the Code. This is a telling issue which should be discussed more critically on campus.

To get back to the article though, Canada never mentions confrontation as a step in the process or a desirable tool. Confrontation is arguably the most important part of the Social Honor Code and the part which actually affects the lived reality of people in the community. Confrontation, a “constructive face-to-face conversation” (Honor Code §3.06), should be the goal, but many times is impossible because of the social and economic schisms that exist on this campus. Sometimes Honor Council can step in here and act as a representative for the accusing party. This is an aspect of the Code which is meant to help alleviate the head spinning power dynamics which exist at this school. If Honor Council is not needed at this stage, then the only reason a social violation would be brought to Honor Council is if the trust of the community had been violated. There is thus plenty of procedure to be defined. Instead, Canada sagely suggests an almost ironic McCarthy era ‘Free Speech Committee’ made up of “proportionate representation on basis of race, gender, and ideology on campus.” This is absurd logistically and (because Canada likes this word so much) ‘ideologically.’ Arguably no one can ever expect to understand the full scope of discrimination, nor should we. That is why we have representatives and jury members which we vote on and the latter are random. Sure there could always be reform, but let’s work on the implementation and the knowledge before we discuss new committees. 

There will always be a majority opinion, but it’s not silencing anyone and it’s not tyranny. This “ideological majority will,” which the author highlights as an oppressive force upon this campus, is inherent in any community. Norms exist in our civil laws and they’ll exist in Haverford’s community. We can have ideological standings which are constitutionally binding because you chose to be here. Choosing what college to be a student is not the same as choosing of what nation to be a citizen. We are afforded to hold ourselves up to a higher standard, to strive for social equity and a “safe space,” because that is a right we have as a private institution.  Throughout this, we can still grow and learn and be a pluralistic community. But it is not only through the people who choose to be here, but by the individuals who show up to Plenary, through those who literally put their blood, sweat, and tears into upholding the Code, either through Honor Council or a Honor Trial jury, and fundamentally, through those who care about what Haverford is striving to do, do we have the Honor Code which imbues and espouses mutual trust, concern, and respect. Where, in the first line of the article, the Code states that “…[W]e seek an environment in which members of a diverse community can live together, interact, and learn from one another in ways that protect both personal freedom and community standards.” (Haverford Honor Council §3.01). This goal that is always shifting, but I believe it to be an admirable one nonetheless.

Finally, if the author can fudge a Martin Luther King quote into their article, then I can fudge a Malcolm X quote into mine. When speaking to Cleveland, Ohio on April 3, 1964 Malcolm X spoke to the necessity of gaining civil rights in the U.S. for African Americans and the problematic nature of “allyship” in America, a point which comes especially to mind reading the author’s opinion on the nature of the Social Code at Haverford.

“This old, tricky blue eyed liberal who is supposed to be your and my friend, supposed to be in our corner, supposed to be subsidizing our struggle, and supposed to be acting in the capacity of an adviser, never tells you anything about human rights. They keep you wrapped up in civil rights. And you spend so much time barking up the civil-rights tree, you don’t even know there’s a human-rights tree on the same floor.” –Malcolm X 1964, Ballot or the Bullet Speech.

Haverford’s commitment to pluralism is well intentioned, but still entrenched in  the power dynamics that permeate everyone’s experience at Haverford. The tree of freedom of speech is always something that deserves to be critically looked at, but so do contextualized experiences affecting wielded power in our community such as class, sex, gender, race, nationality, and ability. Not all speech is equal and not all views are equal, and some chip away at the humanity of individuals everyday. Viewpoints or ideologies aside, we need to strive to recognize the humanness, people’s embodied reality, and what we want Haverford students to bring into the world. Free speech is definitively one of them, but what Haverford is trying to add is an intolerance of discrimination, and attempts at fostering actual equality amongst ourselves and the broader world.

 

1. Even though it was not Canada’s intent to give these two cases the same value, but I question how true this can be, by the fact that he brings this up as a point at all.

2. Additionally, I urge the writer of the article to read R.A.V. v. St. Paul case in full, including the dissenting opinion voiced Justice White, where he has a different view than the Majority Opinion of Justice Scalia. Mostly discussing the many connotations of the ruling that St. Paul’s statute was unconstitutional. Instead of viewing ‘viewpoint discrimination’ as the endpoint or even the valid form of judging speech based upon content, he instead looks to the social ramifications for which the speech has:

There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem. . . . It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality. (Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568)

There is thus an important distinction to be made between expressive content vs. social value. “[i]n light of this history, it is apparent that the unconditional phrasing of the First Amendment was [p401] not intended to protect every utterance…Such a simplistic, all-or-nothing-at-all approach to First Amendment protection is at odds with common sense, and with our jurisprudence as well.” (R.A.V. v. St. Paul 1992)

3. Canada’s use of discrimination, 14 times in the article, shows that they neither know what discrimination means or its role in the Social Honor Code necessitating a reminder.

OED definition of ‘discrimination’ U.S. Unjust or prejudicial treatment of a person or group, esp. on the grounds of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.; freq. with against. Also (with in favour of): favorable treatment of a person or group, in order to compensate for disadvantage or lack of privilege (OED.com 2016).

4. The first line of our Honor Code is, “As Haverford students, we seek an environment in which members of a diverse community can live together, interact, and learn from one another in ways that protect both personal freedom and community standards” (Haverford Honor Council 2016, §3.01)
Works Consulted

https://sga.blogs.brynmawr.edu/honor-board/honor-code/

http://honorcouncil.haverford.edu/the-code/

https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/505/377

http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/54060?redirectedFrom=discrimination#eid

4 Responses

  1. Anonymous Haverfordian says:

    “I am hesitant to be gung-ho for free speech, because for the majority of cases, the people who are arguing for it are white males and don’t have to live an embodied reality of discrimination on a structural and personal level daily.”
    This sentence is the antithesis of what America stands for.

    • Anonymous Haverfordian 2: Electric Boogaloo says:

      Not really. Free speech in America has literally always meant “free speech within reason.” For example, your right to yell “fire” in a crowded theater is not protected by the law. Hannah is making the point that hate speech is absolutely not “within reason”; it directly contributes to very real structural violence, whether you want to believe it or not (even if the perpetrator is “just stating their opinion” or whatever). Ultimately, the heightened obsession with “free speech” we’ve been experiencing in the past however-many-years is a thinly veiled refusal to understand and admit that words can have dangerous consequences.

      What do we, as Americans, care about more? The right to say literally anything, or the right of those from marginalized communities to be safe from violence? The former sounds great, but we must not ignore that the two are deeply intertwined.

    • Hannah Krohn says:

      Can you elaborate on this more? I’m confused on what part of my statement is the antithesis of what America stands for. You can also email me at my Haverford address if you don’t want to do this over comments.

    • Questions says:

      Literally everything happening in our government right now is the antithesis of what America supposedly stands for but ok

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