Students for Free Culture at Rensselaer was not established as a 1st Amendment activist group, to push the envelope of free speech and free expression. The mission of Students for Free Culture is “to build a bottom-up, participatory structure to society and culture” and to educate the next generation of leaders about issues of digital rights and digital freedom. In light of the recent censorship of Wafaa Bilal, however, an important question arises: how can such a participatory structure develop when a culture and tradition of free speech and free expression are in doubt?
The events occurred the week before spring break, and have continued with a minimal student presence at RPI. SFC@RPI has been aiding community collaboration using our wiki, and endeavoring to be a neutral clearinghouse of information regarding this chain of events. If you want to know the whole story, read all about it, and if you see something you can add, contribute to it.
Students for Free Culture at RPI believes that, to the best of our knowledge, the administration is completely within its legal rights to censor any work they so choose. Says the administration, “as stewards of a private university, we have the right and, indeed, the responsibility to ensure that university resources are used in ways that are in the overall best interests of the institution.” But we think that censoring Wafaa Bilal and shutting down his exhibit was the wrong decision. It is relatively easy to give in to angry letters from outraged community members calling for the removal of art they find offensive. But the purpose of that art was to elicit a response in order to foster a discussion. Censorship sends the wrong message: instead of engaging in rational discourse when we disagree with something, we will silence the object of our disagreement.
Of course, SFC@RPI does not and will not endorse the work in question. Indeed, we will not agree with it, disagree with it, or take any other critical position on the work itself. The important point here is that there are any number of perfectly reasonable, rational stances on how to feel about such an exhibit. But just because you disagree with an act of self expression does not mean you have the right to silence that act. Summarizing the belief of Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
One last point we want to make explicit: The issue has spun out of control because of the radical positions on both sides of the discourse. When the College Republicans called the Department of the Arts “a Haven for Terrorists,” it was borderline libelous. But that didn’t stop some people from responding in kind.
Important as the message we are expressing is the way we express it. We will respond to every vitriolic attack and every intolerant diatribe with a calm and reasonable response that asserts the fundamental goals of the movement: a culture of participation and vigorous free thought that engages the whole campus community. Sensationalism and petty bickering may be easy, but these tactics marginalize those moderate voices who want to see a reasonable middle ground reached. It is our right and responsibility to rewrite the spirit of dissent at RPI on our own terms.
We hope that an appeal to common sense and rational discussion will elicit buy-in and support from the whole community, and not only those of us who already feel strongly one way or the other. Only in this way can a free culture succeed and thrive.