Free Speech Limits and Racism Highlight Connecticut College Forum

Mar 27, 2015

More than 20 students representing a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds spoke at the campus event.

It's an idea as old as free speech itself: where does one's right to speak freely end, and the public's right to safety begin? The community at Connecticut College in New London is in the middle of trying to figure that out. 

They're also trying to figure out how the college's mission of "inclusive excellence" fits into the conversation about freedom of speech.

An all-campus forum at the private college on Wednesday drew roughly 1,000 students, dozens of faculty, and top administrators. The forum was sparked by a philosophy professor's Facebook post, wherein he described last summer's "situation in Gaza" as a "rabid pit bull" that needs to be contained. Many students and faculty said the professor's metaphor was dehumanizing and racist, and hoped the college would make an official statement condemning, or at least identifying, hate speech. 

At the forum, President Katherine Bergeron told the students that she stands “in solidarity” with them and their concerns, but she did not condemn hateful language.  

“I stand by the right of all people to speak freely, and to say, freely, their opinions. That is the inalienable right that our institutions must stand for,” Bergeron told WNPR after the event. “At the same time, I stand by the importance of our principles of the community that suggest – state very strongly – that we must behave with each other in civil, respectful ways.”

Did the Speech Cross the Line?

A commenter on Pessin's post suggested a violent act take place, and Pessin agreed. That’s where the lines over protected speech become fuzzy, according to the ACLU.

The First Amendment, which protects free speech as a Constitutional right, “doesn't extend to… speech that incites imminent violence or law-breaking,” the organization states.

The professor, Andrew Pessin, has since publicly apologized. He told WNPR that he meant that Hamas -- which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and other nations – should be “defeated.”

His comment also came during a time when Hamas was engaged in battle with Israel, during which thousands of people died or suffered injuries. Most of the casualties were from Palestine, including many children, according to the U.N. Pessin’s supporters have pointed out that free speech rights are extended during times of war, but others have said the United States was not at war against Palestine during that time, so its laws should not apply.

A Boiling Point and Ripple Effect

One student at Connecticut College has been particularly affected by this incident. Senior Abed Shelbayeh is from Palestine. The morning before the forum happened, someone sprayed “pit bull” on Shelbayeh’s car.

“It’s bigger than Palestine, it’s bigger than Israel,” Shelbayeh told WNPR. “I think it’s about inclusive excellence in general, and all the micro-aggressions that happen in classrooms that go unnoticed by the administration and the professors. Nobody talks about them.”

A micro-aggression is a form of unintended discrimination, such as when a Caucasian professor asks the only African-American in class to answer a question on behalf of all black people.

According to logs from the bias reporting system provided to WNPR, there were 44 bias incident reports filed with the school, which has an enrollment of roughly 1,900 students, from August 2011 to date. Of those incidents, 33 remain under investigation or unresolved. Two were determined not to be incidents of bias, and seven incidents have been resolved.

Connecticut College students await their turn to speak.
Credit David DesRoches / WNPR

Many students say they feel unsafe on campus because of divisions created and hateful language expressed on both sides.

More than 20 students representing a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds spoke at the campus event, many with stories of how they felt marginalized by professors or peers, either by micro-aggressions or direct discrimination. A student from Pakistan said that a professor described his country as a “culture of intolerance.”

One student, wearing a yarmulke, which is a skullcap worn by some Jewish men, warned the audience that he would not be popular with his comments. He said he’s experienced anti-Semitism that made him feel marginalized. Later, a student wearing a hijab, which is a veil worn by some Muslim women, said that’s “exactly why we’re here” – to address racism in all its forms, not just against certain people.

Several students, including college senior Ayla Zuraw-Friedland, said there is a distinct hypocrisy at a college that promotes an “inclusive excellence community” but declines to identify speech that is hateful or dehumanizing.

“Saying ‘we do not condone racism’ should be a fairly easy statement to make for an institution that is supposedly so engaged in creating an inclusive excellence community,” Zuraw-Friedland told WNPR.

A faculty member, who did not identify herself at the forum, echoed Zuraw-Friedland.

“What do we mean by inclusive excellence?  If we’re going to talk about that in the abstract without connecting that in our personhood, and just giving general statements, what are we all here for?”

Many faculty members sat beside students in the auditorium, while the front seats at stage-right were filled by the president and various deans. Bergeron sat stoically for most of the event, rarely applauding after the students spoke. Some deans applauded sporadically.

Several teachers spoke also, including Nathalie Etoke, a French and African studies professor.

President Katherine Bergeron and Ulysses Hammond, vice president of the administration, listen to students at Connecticut College.
Credit David DesRoches / WNPR

“First of all, how can you even teach students about critical thinking, if you’re not able to talk about dehumanization, comparing people, individuals, to animals – the primal level – that is dehumanization,” Etoke said.

Dehumanization, or the act of comparing people to things or beings that aren’t human, is often cited by scholars as a precursor to violence. It's claimed that by dehumanizing a person, it makes it easier to commit violence against that person because they have been detached from their humanity.

Professor Pessin has remained adamant that he was using the pit bull metaphor to refer to an organization, Hamas, and not people. Many of his supporters agreed, and have said they could not see any racist sentiments in his Facebook post.

“I am not dehumanizing anyone, not even members of Hamas,” he earlier told WNPR. “I accord members of Hamas the same humanization [and] respect I accord anyone else.”

A Call for Change

To those critical of his post, if Pessin did not intend to dehumanize, his language has had a dehumanizing effect on some students, including Shelbayeh.

"I have a cousin that's dead, I have a cousin that's never going to walk again, I have a house that's never going to be rebuilt, and I have a father who doesn't want me to go to Palestine because it's unsafe," he said.

Many students say they feel unsafe on campus because of the divisions created and hateful language expressed -- on both sides -- once the post became publicized.

One professor noted that it's okay if the college doesn't condemn hate speech, "but then don't push the community language on us." The following excerpt is from an email to WNPR from a Connecticut College professor, who wished to remain anonymous due to fear of job security:

If you don't condemn it, that's fine. But then don't push the community language on us. We should just say, welcome to Connecticut College, full stop.  Many people are afraid that the college will turn fascist if we condemn hate speech because eventually it may trample our rights. The college will monitor us. I don't see it that way. These students expressed individually why hate can be a precursor to violence and it starts with individuals. We have a teachable moment to teach the global citizenship they want to implement as part of curricular revision. If, within our small community here, we don't condemn hate speech, how can we effect change on a larger scale? It has to start here.

Soon after the controversy erupted, Zuraw-Friedland started a petition on Change.org, requesting the college to "not condone Prof. Pessin's racism and dehumanization." As of early Friday morning, over 400 people had signed.

"Our main goal is simply for the college to make a statement saying that they do not condone any form of hate speech, discriminatory language, or racism from any member of the community," said Zuraw-Friedland, who is also editor of the college newspaper, The College Voice.

Connecticut College students walk to the auditorium for the all-campus forum on free speech and tolerance.
Credit David DesRoches / WNPR

Pessin, who is on medical leave until the end of the year, claims that the students’ efforts are not about campus discrimination and free speech, but an effort to defame him because of his pro-Israel opinions.

“In my opinion, it certainly feels like to me as an absolute, deliberate set up. It feels like an orchestrated campaign,” Pessin said.

Many students disagree, including Zuraw-Friedland. "Our main concern is that we don’t want this to be a debate about Israel and Palestine," she said. "We want it to be a discussion about the way we can and cannot talk about race, and engage with the administration."

Pessin warned that if the administration came out and called his statement racist, it would set a dangerous precedent.

"Over the next couple of years, there's going to be significantly further discussion, for example, of the Israel-Palestinian issue," Pessin said. "If the administration is going to come up with a verdict over whether any individual piece of writing is racist or not, or anti-Semitic or not, then they're going to have to weigh-in, basically, every week for the next five years or something. It seems to be a very bad precedent."

President Bergeron addresses the audience at Connecticut College.
Credit David DesRoches / WNPR

When asked whether the students had considered any possible censorship ripple effects that might happen if the college publicly condemned a certain type of speech, one student, senior Kaitlyn Garbe, said it's a consideration, but it's more important to call out racism.

"There's a difference between holding an opinion, and using incredibly dehumanizing language to express those views," Garbe said.

Zuraw-Friedland said she empathizes with the professor's situation. “While I’m sorry that this has come at a time in his life that is so fraught with other issues, even outside of this, I’m not sorry for the fact that he has served as a catalyst for a conversation that this campus has needed for a very long time,” she said.

An earlier version of this article contained information about Pessin's residence. It has since been removed.