Letter to the Editor

By Estizer Smith

To the Editor:

As a queer woman of color, survivor of sexual assault and student at Pitt, I have been deeply disturbed by the events of the last 48 hours. That a speaker as vitriolic as Milo Yiannopoulos was brought to this campus under the guise of inducing productive conversation regarding free speech is appalling, and the damage and pain that has been caused to the University community is honestly unlike anything I’ve seen here.

The individuals responsible acted without social responsibility or conscience, and for all intents and purposes, the University administration and Student Government Board could do nothing but sit and watch — I stress this point for those who would take their anger out on them. Legal precedent denotes that the rejection of funding to the speaker by SGB, based on the preemptive knowledge of the content of their lecture, is prohibited, and that such governing bodies are required to maintain a neutral stance in the decision-making process — Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth — and that hate speech like the kind purveyed at Yiannopoulos’s lecture is fully protected by the First Amendment — Brandenburg v. Ohio and Snyder v. Phelps. As a public University, the censorship of the event by administration would have been unconstitutional, and very little could — or should — be done to change that. The dichotomy that is legal freedom of speech is rooted in this — we must protect one individual’s right to purvey hatred, in order to protect another’s right to progressive protest, to challenge and to advocate for the social advancements we so desperately need. To restrict one in a court of law is to restrict the other.

Ultimately, I believe Dean Kenyon Bonner was correct at last night’s public meeting in saying that the best counter to hate speech and offensive ideologies is more speech, more discourse. That Yiannopoulos was invited to our campus at all emphasizes a lack of understanding, a lack of empathy and a lack of discourse between members of the student body. It is entirely possible, and not at all unreasonable, to expect that the members of our community engage in challenging, meaningful discourse without sacrificing the integrity and safety of the University community. We demand more of our administration, and of our representatives, but the truth is that we as a student body must also do better.

Yes, this incident has exposed deep fissures in the University community, but these rifts have always been visible to those who dared to look. That being said, student and university organizations like Campus Women’s Organization, Black Action Society, Rainbow Alliance and Sexual Harassment and Assult Response and Education have been fighting to expose and bridge the gaps in understanding caused by these fissures since their inception.

Minority- and advocacy-oriented organizations spend the entire year attempting to engage the community and each other in meaningful discourse on topics including, but not limited to, social justice, sexual assault and freedom of speech. Pitt College Republicans has not seen fit to engage these groups or contribute to this ongoing discussion with the entire Pitt community at large until now, with the invitation of Yiannopoulos. A man that deals almost exclusively in incendiary comments and insults meant to belittle, delegitimize and demean racial minorities, women, LGBTQ+ individuals and survivors of sexual and domestic violence. Had the leadership of College Republicans been genuinely interested in engaging in meaningful discussion with the members of our University on the topics Yiannopoulos addresses, I absolutely believe that groups like CWO, BAS and Rainbow would have engaged in the discussion rooted in “debate, logic and facts” that College Republicans claimed to crave so desperately.

Rather, College Republicans are now faced with a repulsed University community and find themselves in the position to attempt to engage in discourse with individuals that they have deeply insulted by bringing in Yiannopoulos — individuals whose experiences and identities have been deemed invalid. The continuation of a conversation borne of such circumstances would undoubtedly be strenuous for all parties involved. However, the potential for change in how our student groups interact has me hoping that they are up to the task, because creating a campus in which all individuals feel safe and respected does not, and never has, equated the death of freedom of speech.

Estizer Smith

Judicial Committee, Student Government Board 2015-2016

Communications and Psychology, Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, Class of 2016

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