Freedom of speech is not a partisan issue


By now, everyone in Mount Holyoke has likely heard the story of professor Peter Rosnick. The math professor gave a short speech to his class about the importance of voting, and, though he offered no endorsement, every student understood that he supported Hillary Clinton. Unbeknownst to Rosnick, the speech was filmed and distributed to conservative outlets, causing massive backlash against the school on social media.

While we can appreciate the comedic value of Pepe the Frog referring to Mount Holyoke students as “flower children,” the backlash holds troubling implications. We live in a country that prides itself on free speech, but its citizens don’t seem to value its importance. What’s more, the Internet and social media inflate every controversial statement. Thanks to phone cameras, a professor who was intending to address his class ends up addressing outsiders unaffiliated with the College. Rather than considering context or various perspectives, the world feels the insult — the crime of disagreement — as strongly as if Rosnick has been talking directly to them. Every statement is invitation to start an argument. Every slight is a personal attack. In short, we have democratized outrage.

At this point, Mount Holyoke students likely pride themselves on being morally superior to the alt-right Internet commenters. We didn’t insult anyone or initiate any fights. But in light of these troubling developments and an increasingly disturbing an election cycle, I would like to propose a question to the Mount Holyoke community: If a professor had been caught on camera telling students to vote for Donald Trump, would we have so rapidly jumped to their defense?

It’s improbable that Mount Holyoke students would launch an all-out attack on an institution the way some alt-right members did to us, but we would have been unlikely to defend a Trump supporter’s right to speak their mind. For many, freedom of speech is only desirable when we agree with what is being said.

Granted, this is not a normal election cycle and Trump should not be regarded in the same way as other politicians. He has used racism, misogyny and intolerance to gain power in ways that haven’t been seen in decades. However, this is not an issue about Trump or the general election. This is an issue about learning to disentangle yourself from the animosity and vitriol of democratized outrage. When highlighting the difference between the alt-right and ourselves, we point to our politics, our views and our values. That’s too easy. Not only do we have to be tolerant and progressive, we have to hold ourselves to higher standards of conduct.

When Pepe the Frog calls us “flower children” or “liberal gestapo,” we need to remember that there is a human being on the other side of that computer. While we disagree, we must also rise above. We can start by not attacking the student who filmed Rosnick; we may not agree with what they did but they are still a member of the Mount Holyoke community.

Mount Holyoke reacted brilliantly last week and deserves recognition for it: we defended Professor Rosnick and worked to preserve our school’s image. The next challenge is to do the same thing for someone with whom we disagree on every level.

Thomas Jefferson said, “We are all Republicans. We are all Federalists.” If the slave-owning founder of one of the first major political parties could find it in his heart to reach across the aisle, we can too.