Stand for freedom of expression at Rensselaer

Freedom of expression is at risk at Rensselaer. During this semester, we have seen the Dean of Students Office use the judicial process to target leaders of last month’s demonstration outside of the capital campaign launch, administrators threaten the grand marshal with expulsion for doing his job as the chief representative of the student body, and, most recently, a student organization face intense scrutiny over the content of its members’ speech.

This month, an RPI chapter of the conservative organization Turning Point USA went to the Executive Board to ask for Union affiliation. The E-Board spent hours discussing their application across two consecutive meetings, and it is possible that this process will be dragged into the next semester. Some students voiced concern that members of the organization said things that made members of the RPI community feel threatened. Others cited actions of the Turning Point USA national organization as grounds for not approving Union affiliation for its RPI chapter. Denying a group of RPI students Union affiliation for those reasons is dangerous for the diversity of ideas on campus.

At the most recent Executive Board meeting, on November 16, I said that voting not to affiliate Turning Point would be very bad for freedom of expression on this campus. The Executive Board’s job is to help student groups through the affiliation or recognition process, not to look for reasons to deny their applications based on the content of their speech. In this situation, it is apparent that there is a disconnect between people with liberal values, such as diversity and inclusivity, and people who claim to be progressive. Silencing a group because someone disagrees with the content of their speech is illiberal and authoritarian.

It is striking to me that people who claim to be in support of diversity and inclusivity can move so quickly to deny resources to a group whose views they disagree with. Limiting speech and ideas to those which are popular is a recipe for a more insular and less robust discourse. Relatively extreme ideas provide a point of comparison against ideas which are more widely accepted, and this juxtaposition leads to an overall increase in the quality of ideas in a community. Attempting to deny resources to groups with less popular ideas does the entire community a disservice.

With this motion, the Board has an opportunity to unequivocally stand in favor of freedom of expression. Our representatives should take this opportunity to show that they can set aside their personal beliefs and empower the Union to support student organizations of all political leanings. It is not always comfortable, but we cannot compromise on the ideals that have, over time, led to a more free and just society.