In the interest of creating safe spaces, some are questioning if college campuses should be allowed to restrict free speech. The immediate answer is no; the right to say whatever we want is the very first item in our country’s Bill of Rights. One of the best parts of college is having meaningful discussions, which rely on students being able to voice their opinions without fear of consequence. However, an equally important part of college is ensuring that all students feel accepted after hearing others’ opinions. A perfect safe space would balance both, so that students would feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and hearing others’. However, that balance does not yet exist at Ohio State, and the factor holding us back is not free speech. Instead, our problems stem from people trying to impose their viewpoint onto others and the spreading of opinions disguised as facts.
As an example of the first issue, there was recently a man preaching on the Oval about homosexuality being a sin. This deeply offends many students, but most people simply walk by, staring at their phones and pretending not to notice. On this occasion, however, the Ohio State immigration coordinator, Joshua Whitson (or more commonly known on campus as “The Bagpipe Guy” due to his habit of practicing the bagpipes on the Oval]) decided to take a stance. He calmly walked over, stood next to the preacher, and drowned out the man’s words with his music. It was incredible. Without fighting back, Whitson clearly signaled to the preacher that his unsolicited opinions were not welcome on our campus.
There are an unfortunate amount of other examples of people sharing their uninvited, hurtful opinions. However, even more troublesome is when people phrase their opinions as facts. I recently attended a talk given by Norman Finkelstein, hosted by OSU’s Students for Justice in Palestine club. If they were seeking a reputable speaker, Mr. Finkelstein was a questionable choice. While he claims to be an expert on Judaism and the conflict in Israel, he was fired from New York University and Hunter College for blatant anti-Semitism. In one interview, he mocked and discredited the famous Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, stating “Elie Wiesel is such a ridiculous character…He’s turned [the Holocaust] into a business, where he casts himself as a person who’s doing all this from anguish and pain and personal sacrifice, while he has made a fortune out of it.”
Encouraged by the SJP club and his eager audience of forty listeners, Mr. Finkelstein gave a rousing speech about the crimes of Israel against defenseless Palestinians. Only, he was not stating facts. Instead, he was speaking his incredibly biased opinions, but doing so confidently enough that they seemed legitimate. For example, in the middle of his speech, he stated “Hamas is not a terrorist organization”. This is simply not true. Any group that sends suicide bombers onto innocent civilian buses during peace time and uses their own people as human shields during war must be classified as a terrorist group. Furthermore, the United States government itself put Hamas on its Foreign Terrorist Organizations list in 1997, where they have remained for the past twenty years.
Mr. Finkelstein also discussed the supposed atrocities Israeli soldiers committed against Palestinians during the war in 2014, otherwise known as Operation Protective Edge. However, all of his sources came from “Breaking the Silence”, an organization that claims to provide former Israeli soldiers with an outlet to explain what really happened during the war. In actuality, this organization harassed discharged soldiers into sharing their stories, secretly recorded their testimonies, and selectively reported their quotes out of context. These were the kind of “facts” Mr. Finkelstein was reporting, speaking alone and unchecked for two hours.
The route to creating true safe spaces on our campus is not for the administration to restrict free speech. Instead, it is our responsibility as students to protect each other. Whitson has already proven that we can stop those who try to force their opinions on us. Now it is time to push back against those who share false facts. Take the time to research what you hear. (We are at a research institution, after all.) And if someone is spreading mistruths, stand up and correct them. Otherwise nothing will change. It is up to us to make campus a safe space, not just for people in the LGBTQ community or supporters of Israel, but for everyone.