So I haven't written in this blog yet (although I do have one at http://independentlyowned.wordpress.com/ and one specifically on women's issues at http://www.examiner.com/womens-issues-in-newark/katie-franklin), but the prompt for this week was to write about Freedom of Speech. Because of the story I'm about to tell, I feel like that topic really hit a chord with me, and thus I would like to share my experiences in defending one of our most fundamental Constitutional rights.
This story happened at the beginning of my senior year in college at Wheaton College in Norton, MA. I was just beginning my tenure as Editor in Chief for our school newspaper, the Wheaton Wire, and was very excited. The previous semester I had studied abroad in Tunisia in North Africa, a small Arab-Muslim country. There, I learned some Tunisian Arabic, studied the culture via multiple seminars as well as personal experience, and wrote a thesis paper on women's rights in Tunisia, specifically reproductive rights. (My argument centered around the question: Did Tunisia enact women's rights and make brith control and abortions free and readily available for all because they truly cared about women, or because they wanted to be perceived as a modern nation by the rest of the world and wanted to help control the population size?)
My experience there was overall amazing (so amazing in fact that I went back the following summer after graduation to teach English for 2 months), but not without it's downsides. One of which was their lack of personal freedoms. This was apparent in the 1984-esque billboards all over the city and on the sides of highways, the way my host mom would turn off her cell phone, look wildly about and whisper whenever talking about the government and "president" (who wins by 99% of the vote every term), the state run newspapers with pictures of the president on the front of every issue, and the general unwillingness for anyone to talk about politics, let alone care about them. I heard many stories about people being arrested for posting things on the Internet about the government, and about underground movements where people make 10-minute posts in Internet cafes before the police can track them. The Internet is heavily censored, supposedly to protect the country from terrorist groups, but even things like Youtube are inaccessible, although the youth culture is constantly trying to find ways around the firewalls. Needless to say, it gave me a much better appreciation of the rights granted to me by the US Constitution.
Transition back to my senior year at college. Despite the fact that we had a completely student-run newspaper, not censored or approved by any faculty or administrators (which is rare even by college standards), not many people took interest in it. My college was only 1500 people, so not many news-worthy things happened. That being said, we often were crunched on needing to fill space. An aspiring freshman writer I knew had a Letter to the Editor he wanted published. It was meant as a satire piece, and he blatantly called all women prostitutes because they only seem to care about shiny things, expensive dates, and other monetary objects in relationships despite their supposed bent towards feminism.
As an ardent feminist myself, I did not find this piece wholly abhorant. I understood that it was satire and mostly this young man's frustration with his past relationships. I certainly know many women who claim to stand for feministic values, and yet perpetuate the oppressive stereotypes every day, only want men for their money, get drunk every weekend and sleep with whoever buys them the most drinks, and generally take a giant step backwards for everything the feminst movement has worked so hard for these past decades. I found the piece interesting. He even made some good points about superficial relationships towards the end. I even asked him before we went to print if he really wanted his name on it (because we would not have printed it anonymously nor without his permission), and he said yes, go ahead. (For reference, the article and resulting angry comments can be found at the Wheaton Wire site here.)
The day the paper came out there was an uproar. People came to me asking if I knew what I'd printed. They accused me of slander. They said I wasn't allowed to print something like that. "The New York Times would never print this!" My Women's Studies class had a protest in the middle of the main quad in lieu of class, which needless to say, created some awkwardness when I chose not to participate so as to maintain my neutrality and avoid conflict of interest. They carried around signs and screamed "I am not a prostitute!"because apparently the words of an 18 year old made them doubt that for a brief second.
But yes, I knew exactly what I printed; It's rather hard to edit blindfolded. And no it's not slander because it was a commentary piece and he didn't actually give any inaccurate information. Plus, even if he did, it would be libel, not slander, something college kids didn't seem to understand. And yes, I had every right to print whatever I wanted. And of course the New York Times wouldn't print it, but they also wouldn't print a story about the new dining hall policies on Wheaton College campus or give two shits about the latest activities from the Knitting Club. The NYT is not a college paper.
The entire aftermath of this event was truly outrageous. There were discussion groups held by the President of the college, a plethora of ad homimen attacks on both me and the writer, and many an angry Letter to the Editor in the next week's issue. The only thing anyone on campus seemed to concentrate on was the single, hyperbolic sentence, "All women are prostitutes." I'd be hardpressed to believe that anyone who got into Wheaton actually believes that all women are professional sex workers.
It was great that there was so much discussion about an issue everyone seemed to care about, but what I didn't like was people telling me what I could and couldn't print, what this young man was and wasn't allowed to say. After coming from a country where people were literally scared for their lives to speak their mind about the government, for anyone, let alone supposedly liberal college students, to have the audacity to tell me how I could and couldn't exerecise my freedom of expression just made my blood boil.
While I certainly still consider myself very much a liberal, this experience made me realize that we can't pick and choose which topics are protected under the 1st Amendment and which we want to censor. Censorship is bad, end of story. While most of my classmates will luckily never have to experience first hand what living under the iron fist of censorship is like, I certainly hope that this experience opened their eyes as much as it did mine.