Freedom of speech not free from consequences

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Editorial, Argus Staff

The year 2015 commemorates a huge landmark: 150 years since the passing of the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery, and, even still, we are dealing with the horrifying effects of racism on the Illinois Wesleyan University campus.

Recently, the students and faculty were stunned by the appearance of the racial slur “nigger” written with chalk on a campus sidewalk near the Aspiration fountain.

As Wesleyan students, it’s embarrassing that we even have to discuss the ignorance of racial intolerance. Whether or not it was intended as a joke, the history of such a disgraceful word should never be taken lightly, or seen as an ‘acceptable’ word to be used today. It still carries a very derogatory, painful, discriminating and demeaning connotation that we should all know better than to use.

While the act itself was appalling, the response led by students, faculty and professors was overwhelmingly reassuring. School administration invited first-year students to share their goals by writing them in chalk around the fountain, and they invited the student body to write their own counter-message.

In their email message to the student body, they wrote, “We aspire to be a campus that is a local and global community where all people are treated with respect; where social justice and equality prevail; where people are judged on the content of their character not racist, sexist, homophobic and other intolerant beliefs… Respond to the hate speech where it occurred.  The person who wrote this comment won’t see your Facebook post.  He/she will see our strong community response to that word on the sidewalk.”

In short order, students flocked to the Egbers Quad and scrawled uplifting messages in all sorts of colors. It was quite a sight to see, but even this positivity didn’t go unspoiled. An unidentified vandal found it fit to scribe a phallic symbol on top of other messages. Amidst such an incredible show of positivity, one individual opted to express themselves in an immature, juvenile manner.

Though the Argus is pleased with the school administration’s response to the racial slur, the reality is they do not have to respond the way they did. They chose to respond in such a way because they trust us, because they hold the student body to a high enough standard that we’d reply to a racial slur in an appropriate manner.

Freedom of speech is a highly valued concept at this university, in addition to in the country as a whole. When the school administration invited the student body to write a counter-message, they did so trusting that we would respond in a mature and appropriate fashion. But they don’t have to.

We might have a right to freedom of speech, but the administration isn’t obligated to invite us to exercise it. If they feel that the student body will opt for a hateful or incendiary method of expression, they won’t give us such opportunities. And if we can’t be adults and handle these opportunities maturely, respectfully and with dignity, we should not be given them.

Freedom of speech is an important concept to many people. It’s important that the student body not take it for granted. It is a gift not every human being has, and it’s up to us to use it responsibly. Grow up and have some respect.