Teach-in explores free speech issues in historical, modern contexts

Gabby Birenbaum, Reporter

African American Studies Prof. Martha Biondi spoke about free speech in its historical and contemporary contexts at a teach-in and discussion on Tuesday, referencing events from the national civil rights movement to the 1968 Bursar’s Office takeover at Northwestern.

Biondi’s talk, hosted by Black Lives Matter NU and Associated Student Government, provided historical examples of governmental repression of black Americans’ right to free speech. Afterward, about 15 students in attendance discussed free speech at large and in the context of Northwestern.

Biondi opened her talk by discussing the recent national debate surrounding free speech on college campuses. Biondi said highly-publicized clashes between conservative speakers and student protesters have created the perception in the media that right-wing views are suppressed and that free speech is a conservative issue. However, the views of the left, particularly of marginalized groups, have often been policed and silenced, she said.

“This history of stigmatizing and criticizing protest, especially black protest, is still alive,” Biondi said.

History can provide a framework for discussing contemporary protest, Weinberg junior and BLMNU member Jessica Ogwumike said. She added that such discussions are important in light of conservatives’ attempts to “co-opt free speech.”

One free speech battle discussed was a protest last May, when students shut down a sociology class to which an Immigration and Customs Enforcement public relations officer had been invited to speak. In a statement issued later, the administration called the protest “inappropriate and contrary to the values of the University.”

Communication junior and BLMNU member Danielle Dougé said the University’s response to the ICE protest was condemning the right to protest.

“Freedom of speech was weaponized against us,” Dougé said during the discussion.

Ogwumike found similarities between the ICE protest and the Bursar’s Office takeover, as she said both protests fought for the rights of marginalized students and aimed to protect vulnerable students. The University is commemorating the takeover this year for its 50th anniversary.

During her talk, Biondi said that in response to the takeover, then-University President J. Roscoe Miller, some alumni and the Chicago Tribune wanted to have the protesting students arrested and sanctioned. But negotiations ultimately led to an agreement, and many of the students’ demands were met, she said.

Fifty years later, the Bursar’s Office takeover is celebrated as a critically important moment that “ushered in a season of change,” Biondi said. The University is hosting a series of events this year to celebrate its significance.

However, both Ogwumike and Dougé found the administration’s enthusiasm about commemorating the Bursar’s Office takeover and its disapproval towards the ICE protest contradictory — Dougé called it an example of “cognitive dissonance.”

“It’s exploitative of black student organizers from the past to make themselves … look as though they would support those things if they would happen now. They did happen now,” Dougé told The Daily. “To position (themselves) as supporters of the speech of students and their right to protest, and then not to follow through on that, not to support students in their protest contemporarily, is hypocritical.”

Understanding the history of free speech that Biondi presented can help students guide their arguments, Ogwumike told The Daily.

“It’s important to keep things in historical context,” she said. “So, we have to see the continuity of the ways in which certain populations have been marginalized and set apart and left outside of the body politic.”

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