At the end of last year, certain developments took place on this campus that I have yet to completely digest. Everything in the Purple Bubble was running smoothly. The biggest worries on everyone’s minds were whether they would do well on the approaching exams. Yet somehow, I went – within a couple days – from springtime bliss to total chaos. How did my days so quickly change from a period of peaceful studying to a period of having a professor call me a racist, a student I had never met threaten to “cut off my balls with a knife,” and a number of my closest friends look at me negatively?
I was an editor of The Mad Cow. Even worse, I was an editor of The Mad Cow who happened to be white.
What caused all this uproar were two articles that had appeared in the magazine. The first, “College Council Adds the ‘Black Guy’ Position,” was an article satirizing Council’s insufficient method of handling the lack of minority representation on CC. The second, was a departmental pick-up line that had made a reference to slavery.
Now, here are the important questions: Did I write the articles? No. Did I completely like the articles? No. Did I have the feeling that the articles might offend some people? Yes. Had people laughed at the articles? Yes. Did I take any effort to prevent the publication of the articles whatsoever? No. And now the all-important question: Why the hell did I allow them to be published?
I allowed their publication for the very reasons that the debate over these articles’ publication has become so heated. I wasn’t sure if I should edit them out solely on the fact that some people might be offended.
Why? A campus publication should be a representation of the entire community. That includes good jokes as well as bad jokes. To take out articles solely on the basis that some might disagree with them would be to deny such a representation.
Not to mention that I had been reading John Stuart Mill at the time, who had advised me that, “all silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility” (J.S. Mill, On Liberty). I didn’t think I was infallible. I didn’t want to become a censor.
I was also persuaded further by J.S.’s argument in that even if people disagreed with the articles, its publication would ? in the end ? benefit them. This is why I found accusations that I was a racist so perplexing. If we are to defeat ignorance, insensitivity, and these other peculiar evils, should we not make them as apparent as possible, instead of hiding them, and thereby making them harder to overcome?
I decided to let the article be published and allow these questions to be addressed by the general public. Around two days after the article’s publication, I had received a forwarded e-mail from a friend that was sent by one of the presidents of the BSU to the BSU listserv that included lines like: “You all should see the problems with this” and “which I hope you all found offensive.” Such lines usually lead to a large number of angry people.
However, subsequent e-mails that were forwarded to me would become increasingly discomfiting. It was clear from several e-mails that somehow the issue had developed into not just being about sensitivity, but about being a member of the “ignorant white majority.” I found this strange considering that half of our staff and editorial boards were minorities. If I had known that I was representing all whites by editing a magazine, I would have quit the position in a heartbeat.
Equally odd was the general attitude of people on either side. Both seemed to have taken the stance that only truly educated enlightened, people would be able to see the light of truth of their side. And it was with this mindset that the CC meeting was held.
It is also worth mentioning that we had not done the best job of dampening the fire by publishing a parody that argued for censorship. How ironic it is that this parody would later become fact! People would later take this writing to mean that we had taken the issue lightly. As a humor magazine, this is our job.
However, a number of people were of the opinion that certain things should not be joked about. This is not to say that those who were angry were unjustified in their opinion. Many people had clearly taken offense. So, to make amends, we agreed to meet with College Council, and later the BSU, to discuss the pertinent issues.
Understanding how heated the issue had become, we had been promised by several members of Council beforehand, including one CC co-president Joe Masters, that a vote would not take place at the meeting. When it occurred the following week, we offered an apology and a statement that we would use sample audiences in the future to test future articles’ offensiveness and would include a disclaimer to avoid any confusion. What developed from here on is well-known history: people vented their anger, a vote was taken, and The Mad Cow was destroyed.
What cannot be forgotten, though, is that the vote was taken without all of the Council members there. A number of representatives had left the meeting, due to its length, due to a promise that there would not be a vote and due to the fact that they had exams the next morning. However, the nature of these events became only stranger hereafter. One MinCo leader would later write an e-mail praising his “brave soldiers” for “The Mad Cow’s eradication;” some longtime friends of The Mad Cow staff would no longer talk to them since they were now labeled as “racists;” members of Council were called a number of things.
It was at this point of the controversy that all of the major mind-boggling questions had been raised: first, what is the level of sensitivity that a publication should strive for, if any at all; second, what is the nature of our Council’s governance if they can loosely interpret their own constitution at a meeting and then adopt a method to remove an organization’ s recognition, which had not been previously adopted on the spot; and third, were the Council’s actions a violation of the freedom of speech? The first two of these questions, I give to you, dear reader, as I remain as I have always been: baffled. The third, however, I believe can be answered in the affirmative.
But, before I begin my argument here, I wish to point out that we have almost no Supreme Court cases to rely on for our own interpretation. To my knowledge, the Supreme Court has not ruled a situation like this. The best case that we can look to is the University of Wisconsin v. Southworth, which states that decisions like College Council’s are illegal at a state university. However, Williams ? as we all know ? is a private college. Therefore, Williams College is not ? as of now ? constitutionally obligated to provide for the freedom of speech.
However, the College’s own policy delegates a right to a campus organization’s “freedom of association, expression, speech, etc.” Therefore, the Council’s decision was not only a decision that it has yet to justify, but a clear violation of the college’s own policy of the freedom of speech. Although some have offered the argument that we do have other venues of expression, the question must be asked: at what point is the freedom of speech so limited that it is no longer a freedom? I believe that the Council’s limitation was unmistakably the death of this freedom.