On Social Justice and Freedom of Opinion

The ideas and viewpoints expressed in the posts on the Ideas and Creations blog are solely the view of the author(s). Luther College's mission statement calls us to "embrace diversity and challenge one another to learn in community," and to be "enlivened and transformed by encounters with one another, by the exchange of ideas, and by the life of faith and learning." Alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends of the college are encouraged to express their views, model "good disagreement" and engage in respectful dialogue.

On Wednesday, April 25, the Luther community was notified that someone or multiple someones had replaced the sign for the Spanish table--a table staffed primarily by students from Spanish-speaking countries and frequented by students who need credit for their Spanish classes--with a sign saying "Whites Only." The next day, as we continued reeling from that news, we received another email saying that a poster for the drag show had been defaced with a message stating, "Bad Y'all are going to hell."

These messages were painful for many members of our community. Many people felt unwelcome and unsafe, and some people broke down. Yet many of us asked, "What can be done? What can we do?" On Wednesday night, Black Student Union brainstormed and published a long list of desired actions, both actions that students could take and actions that the administration could take. On Thursday afternoon, College Ministries held an interfaith prayer service. On Thursday evening, Dr. Herbert Perkins, also known as Okogyeamon, drove down from Minneapolis to join the Luther community for a teach-in about racism and inclusion.

And then it was Friday.

On Friday, the Theology and Religious Diversity class hosted a sit-in outside the president's office to give students an opportunity to come together and to push for change, including a stronger social justice focus within the curriculum. Over 600 students signed in at the sit-in at one point or another throughout the day. We sang protest songs, drew rainbow flags on ourselves, gave and attended workshops and speeches, and brainstormed ways to make Luther more welcoming and inclusive.

The event itself was very healing, and I'm glad it happened. Further action is necessary, and I support the brainstormed demands that my fellow students are pushing. But pushes like this one, that call for a stronger institutional commitment to equity and inclusion, often leave me wondering how we balance supporting the marginalized members of our community with preserving freedom of speech and opinion.

There are those who would argue that the two things should not be balanced, that drawing any sort of equivalency between the safety of marginalized community members and the freedom of speech of those who occupy more privileged positions is inherently wrong. I agree that the two concerns are not equal. Yet I contend that both are necessary if we are to be an institution truly dedicated to inquiry.

In thinking about this issue, I am grateful especially to two speakers who have come to campus during my time at Luther. The first is Ted Koppel, who delivered the Roslien Distinguished Lecture just this past week, on May 1. From his standpoint as one of America's most decorated journalists, he reminded us that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts. And indeed, freedom of opinion only serves our democracy if it is held in check by a common understanding both of what a fact is, in general, and what the facts of a particular situation are.

The second speaker to whom I am grateful is Mary McAleese, former President of Ireland, who gave the Farwell Distinguished Lecture in 2015, when I was a first-year student. McAleese said a number of things that have stuck with me in the three years since I heard her speak, one of which was that she would endure any disparaging remark Protestants would throw at her for being Catholic, but she would not tolerate sexism.

I have long regretted not asking McAleese how she drew that distinction and why her identity as a woman was to be defended in a way that her identity as a Catholic was not. In the absence of an answer from McAleese, however, I have come up with an answer of my own: first, being a woman may be more central to McAleese's identity than being a Catholic; and second, taking offense at slights against Catholics may have jeopardized the peace process in Northern Ireland, a process in which McAleese was central, whereas there was not a similar danger when McAleese upbraided her male colleagues for their sexist remarks. In addition, I believe McAleese saw insults to women as attacks against her humanity and did not view insults to Catholics in the same light.

I would like to think that we here at Luther are not engaged in anything quite as delicate as the Northern Ireland peace process and that we therefore do not need to tolerate bigoted behavior for the sake of making things run smoothly. Yet how can we distinguish bigoted behavior from valid exercises of freedom of opinion? It seems to me that speech or behavior tips into bigoted territory when it does not acknowledge the full and equal humanity of all people.

Free speech is important, but the obligations of an institution like Luther are not the same as the obligations of the government. While in America we have decided that the government may not punish most types of speech, speech may be legally free and still come with consequences, such as suspension or expulsion from school if it is deemed to have violated the code of conduct in a significant enough way. In order to maintain the ability of all students to feel safe enough to learn, we have decided that some very bigoted opinions are not welcome here, and that is as it should be.

At the same time, if we are serious about social justice, I believe we need a healthy and vigorous debate about what a truly just society looks like and how to get there. While liberals are the ones I typically hear talking about social justice, I do not believe that they (we) have all the answers to that question. My hope for the Luther College community is that enough of us can acknowledge both the importance of recognizing the full and equal humanity of all people, on the one hand, and the importance of respecting differences of opinion, on the other hand, and that we can sit down for a dialogue about justice that excludes voices of hatred but still includes multiple viewpoints.

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  • May 12 2018 at 8:51 am
    Brad White ‘06
    Linnea, kudos for your thoughtful analysis here. The tension between free speech and responsible speech is an important tension in our society and on our campuses. I’d encourage you to listen to the recent This American Life (episode 645) that also speaks to the themes and questions in your piece. Keep thinking and writing!

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