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In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack yesterday a lot of people have been sharing this quote from Voltaire:

“I don’t agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Unfortunately, the quote isn’t real — or at least, it’s not really Voltaire. It comes from a 1906 biography by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, in which it was intended to represent a summary of his thinking on free speech issues. “I did not mean to imply,” she wrote later, “that Voltaire used these words verbatim.”

Some have claimed that the quote is a paraphrase of a similar statement from a 1770 letter of Voltaire’s:

“I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.”

I myself made this “correction” in a blogpost a few years ago, and again on Twitter yesterday. But it turns out it’s a fake too — the letter from which it’s supposedly taken includes no such sentence.

Scholars pretty much agree that the sentiments in both passages are Voltairean, even if the language isn’t. So is there a third option we can use in good conscience?

Well, not really. So far I’ve found two candidates. First, there’s this:

“Think for yourselves, and allow others the privilege to do so, too.”

Sadly, it has its doubters too, but it does appear in a 1901 published edition of Voltaire’s essays, so if it’s a fake it’s a fake of mistranslation. I’ve been trying to track down the French original to compare, but so far without success.

For a final option, we return to Hall, and to the page of her biography in which the original troublesome quote appeared. Its context was the burning of a book by a fellow French writer, to which Voltaire responded with the following:

“What a fuss about an omelette! How abominably unjust to persecute a man for such an airy trifle as that!”

These two sentences are what inspired Hall to her gloss, and while they don’t carry the punch of “defend to the death,” they do fit neatly into 140 characters — with room left over for attribution and a URL.

Ross Douthat in the NYT this afternoon, linked approvingly by Chris Hayes on Twitter:

“If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn’t really a liberal civilization any more.”

I don’t get this. At all.

An odious piece of writing doesn’t become not-odious because it offends someone odious. A pointlessly crappy cartoon remains a pointlessly crappy cartoon even if the cartoonist is targeted for murder.

It’s true (and important) that the murder of people who express stupid ideas stupidly is a threat to free expression more generally. Violence against bad speech can chill good speech, and even bad speech should not be greeted with lethal violence.

But the cure for violence against bad speech isn’t more bad speech.

An environmental activist expelled from Georgia’s Valdosta State University (VSU) has won a $50,000 award in a lawsuit against the university president who kicked him out of school in 2007. In a dramatic rebuke to President Ronald Zaccari, the federal jury that heard the case found Zaccari personally liable for violating Hayden Barnes’ due process rights.

The case emerged from a dispute over a planned parking structure that Barnes considered a waste of money and an environmental blight on the campus. At least three times Zaccari reached out to Barnes to complain about his organizing against the garage — which included flyering about other uses to which the money could be put and calling members of the VSU board of regents to urge them to reject the proposal —  and when Barnes posted a collage on Facebook that called it the “Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage,” Zaccari claimed it was a threat to his safety and expelled him without a hearing.

Zaccari’s conclusion that Barnes posed a threat of violence was contradicted by campus mental health officials and Barnes’ own therapist, and his decision to expel Barnes without due process violated university policy. The University of Georgia System’s board of regents reversed the expulsion the following year, and Zaccari took an early retirement from the university as the scandal around his actions grew.

When college administrators violate students’ rights they are generally protected from personal liability by a legal principle known as qualified immunity. Under qualified immunity, a government employee who acts wrongfully may only be sued as an individual if his or her behavior violates “clearly established law” of which a reasonable person would have been aware.

In this case, however, a federal jury found Friday that Zaccari’s actions were so egregious that he could be held personally responsible for them, and that his position as a government employee did not shield him from individual liability. Zaccari was told to pay Barnes damages of $50,000 plus attorneys’ fees, which will be assessed at a later date.

A separate lawsuit against the VSU board of regents is currently pending.

Barnes was represented in his lawsuit by FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Though I’ve clashed with FIRE on some issues in the past, they got this one exactly right and won a very important victory.

College and university administrators need to know that if they wantonly violate students’ rights they run the risk not only of damaging the institutions they serve but also of facing personal legal consequences.

As a result of Friday’s decision, such administrators have new reason to tread carefully.

A computer science undergrad at Montreal’s Dawson College was recently expelled after stumbling across — and reporting — a coding flaw that compromised the security of the personal information of the college’s students.

Ahmed Al-Khabaz, 20, found the security leak while working on a mobile phone app for students. Thanks to “sloppy coding,” he says, anyone with basic skills could have accessed “personal information of any student in the system, including social insurance number, home address and phone number, class schedule, basically all the information the college has on a student.”

Al-Khabaz reported the flaw to Dawson’s Director of Information Services and Technology on October 24, and was assured that the college and Skytech, the company that had written the software, would take immediate action to plug the leak. Several days later he ran a test of the system from his home computer to see whether the students’ information — including his own — had in fact been secured.

Within minutes Al-Khabaz received a phone call from Edouard Taza, president of Skytech. (He had made no attempt to conceal his identity while running the probe, he says.) Taza accused Al-Khabaz of launching an attack on the system, and demanded that he sign a non-disclosure agreement covering the incident. (Skynet later declared that Al-Khabaz’s test had compromised the responsiveness of its site.)

Not long afterwards, Al-Khabaz was called into a meeting with top college officials, after which — with no notice to Al-Khabaz and without hearing his side of the story — the faculty of his department voted 14-1 to expel him. Two attempts to overturn the decision were rejected, and now Al-Khabaz is out of college with a semester’s worth of failed classes and a dismissal for academic misconduct on his transcript.

Since this story broke in the National Post on Sunday, however, Al-Khabaz has seen his fortunes begin to change. His plight was featured in Boing Boing, the Twitter hashtag #HamedHelped began to blow up, and the Canadian — and global — media began to knock on his door.

A large portion of this attention came from the Student Union at Dawson College, which set up a website providing resources relating to his case, a petition calling for his reinstatement, and assistance to media looking to talk with Al-Khabaz. At this writing, 7,763 people have signed the Student Union petition, with tens of thousands more visiting the site.

More recently, Edouard Taza has offered him a full scholarship to complete his studies elsewhere, while the number of job offers he’s received in the wake of the scandal have reached double digits.

Dawson College, however, shows no signs of backing down. A statement posted to their website asserts that “the reasons cited in the National Post article for which the student was expelled are inaccurate.” In an interview yesterday, Dawson director general Richard Filion called Al-Khabaz’s actions “a criminal act,” though the college has not contacted police about the incident.

A new report on a 2011 CUNY protest that saw more than a dozen arrests leaves core questions unanswered while misrepresenting evidence of police violence.

On November 21, 2011, City University of New York students and faculty assembled with others at Baruch College for a public meeting of the CUNY board of trustees. The gathering, which took place six days after police rousted the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park, was large and boisterous, and turned confrontational after police and CUNY security blocked most of those in attendance from the room in which the meeting was taking place. Fifteen demonstrators were arrested in the clash that followed, amid reports of rough behavior from baton-wielding cops.

In the weeks after the confrontation CUNY commissioned an independent report on the incident, and that report, prepared by the Kroll consulting firm, has just been released. But the 65-page report fails to confront the exclusion of most protesters from the trustee meeting, a central issue for the demonstrators and a crucial question for CUNY to address going forward. Additionally, it misrepresents the state of the public record on the question of whether police used inappropriate force during the course of the demonstration.

The Kroll report documents that CUNY administrators expected, and prepared for, a large turnout for the public hearing on November 21, which was staged to allow comment on proposed tuition hikes. Administrators and security officials held a series of planning meetings and police trainings in the run-up to the hearing, at which some 79 security officers were made available to manage crowd control. Despite this planning, and the fact that the purpose of the hearing was to facilitate public comment on CUNY policies, the meeting was held in a room which the Kroll report describes as having a capacity of just 120 people, while an “overflow” room with a one-way video hookup was provided in an entirely different part of the building from the hearing itself.

Protesters’ frustration with their exclusion from the meeting was the primary source of conflict that day. The Kroll report makes that clear. The report, however, never so much as raises the possibility that a different choice of venue might have led to a better outcome, or engages with the question of whether CUNY might have done more to facilitate public access to the hearing. This omission is particularly striking given the fact that the report’s witnesses note that the room was filled to capacity nearly an hour before the hearing’s scheduled start time, leaving more than a hundred members of the public — a large majority of them, by all accounts, students — unable to participate. (Barbara Bowen, the president of the CUNY faculty union, has described the hearing room as having a posted capacity of 300, which would have provided ample space for all those present at Baruch that day. It’s not at all clear where the Kroll report’s figure of 120 came from.)

The most generous interpretation of CUNY’s meeting planning is that the university prioritized crowd control over the university community’s ability to provide input into the institution’s tuition and governance policies. A more cynical observer might reasonably conclude that the trustees’ intentional restriction of access was itself a root cause of the conflict that followed. That these questions remain unexplored is a glaring defect in the Kroll report.

A second, and more dramatic, flaw in the report is what can only be described as a fundamental misrepresentation of the available evidence of police misconduct. Alleging that its investigators “found no evidence to suggest that any of the protesters were injured during the struggle,” the report claims that the CUNY department of public safety “received no complaints indicating that anyone had been injured, even superficially,” and that Kroll did not “find any evidence to the contrary,” either in its interviews with participants or “in its review of public records, social media, and video evidence.” (Emphasis mine.)

The first contradiction to this sweeping declaration comes in the very next sentence, in which a reporter from the Hunter College student newspaper who interviewed a number of protesters is said to have described several of them as “banged up and bruised.” My own research, moreover — which took the form of a twenty-minute Google search — turned up the following:

  • A New York Times story on the demonstration described protest organizer and participant Carlos Pazmino, a City College student, as having witnessed CUNY public safety officers “hitting … students with the batons.” The Times quoted Pazmino as saying that he had seen “two people knocked down by cops … and one guy’s head was bleeding.”
  • In a Daily News story, Hunter alum Michelle O’Brien was quoted as saying “the officers were attacking us,” while Baruch undergraduate Brittany Robinson said police “started pushing us and beating us” without provocation.
  • A Daily Kos liveblog declared that a journalist who covered the hearing had been injured when police threw her into a revolving door, and that witnesses had described another participant as having been “taken away bleeding from the head or face.”
  • A story in the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that one witness had told their reporter that “several students had been struck” with batons. The Chronicle reporter himself said he had seen “a young woman’s head on the floor, under an officer’s knee.”
  • In comments on an NYU Local piece, Hunter College student newspaper staffer Tiffany Huan said that she had been “beaten” and “sexually harassed.”
  • In an article on the CUNY faculty union website, Huan said she was grabbed by her hair and thrown to the ground, leaving her “in so much pain … I could barely stand up.”
  • In an article in the Baruch student newspaper, demonstrator Kevin Tighe said that “a lot of people got beat up really badly,” while demonstrator Denise Romero alleged that there were injuries among the protesters.
  • In a blogpost, Brooklyn College student Zachary Poliski said that officers struck demonstrators with batons, and that one student’s head was bloodied.
  • A commenter on a YouTube video who described him or herself as an eyewitness said that “students were beaten” by police.

By my count that’s seven witnesses, five of them named, who claimed to have seen police beating protesters. Three witnesses, two named, said they saw a demonstrator bloodied, and at least four witnesses alleged other injuries. And again, that’s what I found in twenty minutes. But in a yearlong investigation, Kroll says, they found no evidence — none — “that anyone had been injured, even superficially,” in the demonstration.

Only one of the eight named eyewitnesses I cite above is mentioned in the Kroll report, and that witness, Tiffany Huan, is named only in the context of a dismissal of her charges of sexual harassment. Her claim that police violence left her “in so much pain [she] could barely stand up” is not addressed.

I’ve written to Kroll to request comment on these issues, and I’ll let you know what — if anything — I hear back.

About This Blog

n7772graysmall
StudentActivism.net is the work of Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing.

To contact Angus, click here.

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