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Freedom of speech comes with responsibility

March 27, 2015

On March 13, 2015, President Wyatt sent an email to faculty and staff explaining that the campus discussion board was suspended because the standards of “civility, respect, and intellectual openness and honesty” were not being met. Hostility and blatant disrespect for multiple viewpoints are perennial issues and the “discussion” board has done little to foster or model the sort of reasoned, civil, engaged discourse that is a core learning objective of our liberal arts curriculum.

When the message board was created, there was potential for it to be a dynamic space for academic debate. Unfortunately, it was quickly dominated by one voice (or, at most, a handful) and used as a platform for reposting essays reflecting a particular political ideology. Attempts to engage this voice in meaningful dialogue were met with disrespect, devaluation and dismissal of alternative viewpoints and a hostile derision of particular academic disciplines. In 2005, I presented a conference paper at the National Communication Association Annual Convention where I analyzed the content and rhetoric of this electronic forum. In that paper I argued that incivility and community fragmentation flourish on the MC discussion board which subverts deliberation and problem solving, discourages constructive engagement and creates a hostile environment that is ultimately corrosive to our campus community.

The inciting incident that prompted the suspension of the discussion board was a statement used to introduce an opinion essay which criticized a feminist blog that suggested formal grammatical rules are informed by and reinforce racial bias: “Youz gotsta bee makin diz crap up. Ize bets dis womin iza pragresic edukata. If yuze understans ebonics duz dis makes ya bilingual.” This statement is blatantly insensitive and hostile to African Americans, Black English and intersectional feminist scholarship aimed at inclusivity and acceptance of differences, linguistic and otherwise.
Unfortunately, this offensive post is not isolated. An even more egregious event was instigated by the same voice that was the impetus for the current suspension of the discussion board about 10 years ago. In that incident, internal message board posts of a colleague were leaked to followers of a conservative speaker who had spoken on campus along with the transcript of his interaction with MC audience members. Those leaked messages resulted in the harassment of this colleague who received a barrage of offensive, racist and misogynistic messages from people outside MC. There was nominal intervention by the administration at that time so, as a long-standing member of this community, I’m happy to see President Wyatt take some action.

Insidious damage has been inflicted on our community by a decade’s worth of corrosive rhetoric and racial/religious intolerance vented by one individual under the guise of freedom of speech. The freedom to speak comes with responsibility. There is a difference between impassioned debate and being an intentionally divisive provocateur. Faculty and staff must take responsibility for modeling productive and respectful dialogue. While suspending the message board may be an initial step toward addressing the damage done by perpetual incivility in one mediated forum, as an institution, we need to be more proactive about cultivating respectful spaces truly inclusive of diverse viewpoints.

This editorial was submitted by communication studies professor and department chair Trudi Peterson.

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