Panel Discusses Free Speech, Dissent in Oberlin’s Political Climate

Elizabeth Dobbins, Staff Writer

A panel will meet to discuss the implications of free speech in Oberlin’s political climate on Friday, April 27, at 4:30 p.m. in King 106. The panel, titled “I may not like what you have to say, but I would die for your right to say it’: Critical Reflections on Free Speech, Dissent and Political Divide at Oberlin,” will feature Associate Dean Joyce Babyak, Associate Professor and Chair of Philosophy Tim Hall and Professor of Politics Chris Howell, College senior Andres Feliciano, College first-year Ariana Gil and College junior Nick Miller.

The idea for this event came about when Feliciano contacted the Oberlin College Dialogue Center after feeling disappointed with the way discussion was handled during John Bolton’s visit to Oberlin this February. “It wasn’t structured in a way that was conducive to a dialogue,” he said. “There was a power dynamic in the way it was presented. … The audience had a wide range of ages of people. This is the reason that the people who put that event together cite that they didn’t do a lineup and ask questions, sort of Q and A section, afterwards and they allowed the speaker himself to call on people. I was one of the few students who was actually called on,” said Feliciano.

Feliciano said he also felt that both the student protesters’ interruptions and the rest of the audience — largely a group of older Ohio residents — had to these disruptions prevented any productive dialogue from occurring.

“When events like this happen where there isn’t a channel for dialogue, we need channels for dialogue afterwards,” said Feliciano. “So what I thought to myself was, OK, if the only way that Republicans and Libertarians and people from that line of thought can feel comfortable expressing their views is in settings like these where there’s a clear power dynamic at play, in which people have something that they’re feeling and don’t have any way to express, we need alternatives. So why not bring people together with differing opinions from the outset and see if they can humanly talk to each other, which I think is very possible.”

Miller, president of the Oberlin College Republicans and Libertarians, feels that calling this panel together inaccurately singles this lecture out as the sole source of controversial speakers that come to Oberlin.

“They want to talk about [the Ronald Reagan Political Lectureship Series] speakers as if ours are the only controversial ones that have ever shown up on this campus, which is wrong,” said Miller. “There’s no special worry about the format. There’s no special worry about anything that our speakers have that is not similar to other speakers on this campus,” said Miller. “The only reason why there’s the idea that our speakers are somehow more controversial or that we have to talk about free speech when it’s our speakers is because they don’t notice that almost the exact same format is with every other speaker, but they’re drinking the Kool-Aid for that guy.”

Feliciano acknowledges that lectures at the College tend to be polarized and hopes the panel can begin to address this. “The main goal [is] to present an alternative to the usually one-sided, either left or right, bottom or top, whatever you want to call it, usually one-sided events of… discussion on campus,” said Feliciano.

The need for opportunities to express differing views requires speakers who are willing to address audience questions from the audience, in Feliciano’s opinion. Speaking about the way Bolton’s speech left no outlet for many students to express their views, he said, “I was also upset by the effect that that particular aspect [the lack of opportunity for questions] had on the audience, which [was to deny] students who were feeling either offended or confronted with what he was saying… that chance.”

Miller contends that the point of the Ronald Reagan Lectureship series has been misinterpreted. “It’s a lecture series. It’s not a debate club. It’s not a discussion group. It’s not any of that. The point of a lecture is to allow the person giving the lecture ample power and ample protection in order to make it.”

Hall shared Miller’s sentiments and said he feels the issue arises more from student inability to respond to speakers they disagree with and less to do with the format of the dialogue.

“It is noteworthy that anyone feels the need to have a formal discussion of ‘political antagonism’ in response to nothing more than the Republican and Libertarian Club sponsoring Republican and libertarian speakers. There are sometimes strong reactions to OCRL speakers, it is true. A more apt response, though, than a discussion of “antagonism” would be advice to our audiences on how to cope when they disagree with a speaker,” Hall said.

As long as the speaker is not kept from talking, however, Miller fully supports audience interaction.

“Using red flags, asking really good questions, things like that, that was awesome. I mean, I love throwing up red flags,” said Miller. “A good speaker wouldn’t be rattled by that.”

Yeworkwha Belachew, Oberlin’s ombudsperson, sees this panel as “one of the many discussions that we will have to work on until we get it right.” Ultimately, Belachew said she hopes this panel will foster a “constructive and respectful dialogue.”

Miller said he feels the line between productive and unproductive speech is a blurry one and directly relates to the issue of free speech. “Productivity in talking about dialogue with people, especially about protesting and dissent, is really just a judgment call on both parties. … If they don’t want to be productive, and they just want to protest for the heck of it, that doesn’t implicate free speech either. You can do that as well,” said Miller.

The panel is intended to address this conception of free speech. “We don’t like to hear the antithesis of our views, what goes directly against what we believe, because beliefs are very strong. They’re tied to our identity. They become part of our identity,” Feliciano said.

“We need to protect all speech, because you can’t shut up the truth, even if the truth isn’t what you like.”