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The Necessity of Free Speech

The following comments were in response to a controversial cartoon that was featured in The Fed, a Columbia University sponsored newspaper. The fallout following the cartoon lead to the NY Times article entitled “Columbia President Denounces Racially Offensive Incidents” and gave new life to the argument over free speech.

I was disappointed to learn of these recent events at [Columbia University] my alma mater and am saddened that racism continues to persist so overtly as in this case under the guise of “humor.”

Unfortunately, such tasteless expression exists in many forms and is done by many people, including people of color. As much as it often stings, I am a strong proponent of the right to free speech. I believe that everybody, regardless of each individual’s biases and prejudices, should have the right to express their views. At the very least, this puts such views in the public forum, acknowledges the reality we live in, and encourages debate with the hope that we can evolve from such discussion.

However, education is key in this evolutionary process. I believe that Columbia University, as well as the educational system as a whole, has an obligation to equip us with the necessary tools to understand, properly partake in, and benefit from such debate. Frankly, the entire system has done a poor job of this as evidenced by the cartoon and actions of the university school band. Specifically, Columbia University has done a poor job of this as evidenced by the creator of the cartoon being a Columbia alumnus as well as the band and publication being Columbia sponsored student groups. The actions of these individuals do not encourage discussion, but instead incite outrage. I am troubled knowing that many institutions of higher education do not prioritize this issue.

As we denounce this cartoon and actions of the university student band because of their negative impact on us and society as a whole, I encourage us to look more critically at other expressions of free speech, particularly those by people of color and think of the often poor message that is communicated and how we can better express the realities of our existence while fostering positive debate and growth. Along the lines of humor, I am reminded of how this is a two way street every time I see just how popular such performances as Kings of Comedy, Queens of Comedy, and Latin Kings of Comedy are as well as some sitcoms on UPN, major and minor released movies, etc.

I encourage all of us to communicate to the administration of Columbia University through whatever means we deem appropriate and express our disapproval of such messages. In addition, I would encourage all of us to emphasize the need for better courses and programs that foster the insight and sensitivity needed to correct such tasteless “humor.” This should not only be directed at Columbia University, but also any educational platform.

Specifically for Columbia alums of the class of 1999, this year happens to be our five year reunion. After being reminded of just how poor a job the administration has done with regard to such issues, I have decided to not attend any future Columbia sponsored events, including those for the upcoming reunion. Instead, I will communicate my protest to the administration as well as save my money for any reunion events outside of Columbia and for organizations that better educate individuals on such issues.

March 15, 2004
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