As I begin to write this column, aboard a plane flying in from Qatar, the couple behind me is in a furious debate over the Islamic world’s reaction to the “Innocence of Muslims,” a small-budget Hollywood film depicting the prophet Muhammed in negative light, that gained a lot of attention after launching its trailer on YouTube. The trailer had sparked protests and rage across the Muslim world, culminating in flag-burnings, demonstrations, and even an attack on the US embassy in Libya, killing the US Ambassador Chris Stevens, along with others in Benghazi.Somehow, free speech never fails to be an issue, and over the summer, this became abundantly obvious. Those ubiquitous questions about the morality of speech continue to remain unanswered, and I cannot help but wonder: what progress have we made at Stanford in the past few years, to safeguard the traditionally accepted merits of freedom of thought and expression?
But first, is free expression overrated? When the CEO of Chik-fil-A made evident his thoughts on marriage, the public reception was varied. Voices ranged from those in support of his right to believe in whatever his heart desires, to those calling for a boycott of Chik-fil-A restaurants. However, perhaps what caught the most attention was a message from the mayor of Boston, suggesting that any attempts by Chik-fil-A to expand into his city would be thwarted.
Many (including myself) believe the CEO’s personal views are vitriolic in a world striving for equality, and a person of wealth and power has the ability to influence others. But if you strip a man of his ability to speak his mind, and occupy his intellect with whatever he chooses to personally believe, to what does his lifetime of work to establish himself in this world really amount? I am inclined to believe that freedom of thought, and subsequent expression, are among the few things that purely safeguard our individuality within social contracts where we collaborate, and give up some of that individuality.
This is not to imply that free expression cannot get out of hand. Nobody deserved to die in the aftermath of a cheap Hollywood trailer, and the seemingly swift proclivity of Muslim activists to burn flags and cause destruction only exacerbates the image of Muslims as a non-peaceful community, and this in turn harms the majority of Muslims who do not empathize with similar sentiments (think of the dozens of civilians who gathered in Benghazi to mourn the ambassador’s death).
On the other side of things, it is entirely true that a lot of Middle Eastern antagonism towards the West finds its roots in a deep-seeded feeling of victimization. A recent tragic trend has been the murdering of US troops in the Middle East by the same security forces they are training to become self-sustaining. These are not terrorists- they are local cops in training, frustrated that their countries have been invaded, bombed, and now at the mercy of other nations.
Given context, which opportunity of censorship was appropriate—that of the YouTube trailer, or of protesters on the streets of Cairo and Benghazi, or neither? There are many other examples of free speech issues from this past summer: the Chicago teachers’ protest, and President Barack Obama’s use of the American flag as a customized logo for his campaign, to name just a couple more.
At Stanford, I believe we have made some progress. During my time here, I have seen allowed typically popular movements such as the LGBTQ protests against ROTC, to unpopular ones such as “Crazy Jesus guy,” the member of the Westboro Baptist Church who appears on white plaza with radical messages; we allow Occupy activists to host speakers, and the Students for Life to plant tiny crucifixes in protest of abortion.
In the past I have been critical of Stanford’s narrow allowances on speech. White Plaza remains the only free speech zone, on an 8,000 acre campus. But what I am interested in right now is to see how this next year plays out.
This promises to be arguably the most contentious year of my Stanford career. The presidential election is surely the most polarized of its kind in contemporary history, as evidenced by what are serving as the hot-button issues at party conventions. According to forecasters, the Supreme Court is likely to take up the issue of same-sex marriage soon. At Stanford, campus conservatives have picked up momentum; this is clear from the growth in membership within the Stanford Conservative Society.
These are among many speech issues that I foresee becoming headliners at Stanford over the next year. How are we going to rise up to the challenge? Will we shy away and produce an image of apathy, as the *Review *observed last year, or are we going to have a regular shutting out of minority opinions by more favorable ones?
I would hope at after the many disputes and stories this summer, Stanford students will recognize how important it is for us to figure out what free expression means. We are nowhere closer to answering the nebulous questions about speech today as we were yesterday, or even a year ago, but the only way we will make real progress is if people participate in speech, and internalize this as truly something worth their time and intellectual exertion.
*Nadiv Rahman ’13 is a senior majoring in political science and Editor Emeritus of the *Stanford Review. *He can be reached at *<[email protected]>.