A dialogue about free speech

Jelani Cobb (left) and Conor Friedersdorf offered differing opinions on race and free speech at a recent College event, moderated by NPR's John Dankosky.
Jelani Cobb (left) and Conor Friedersdorf offered differing opinions on race and free speech at a recent College event, moderated by NPR's John Dankosky.

Jelani Cobb (The New Yorker) and Conor Friedersdorf (The Atlantic) have criticized one another in print for their stances on the college protests sweeping campuses nation wide—protests about race and free speech, which have engulfed colleges from The University of Missouri to Yale.

The two faced off in a more peaceful setting Thursday night at Connecticut College in an event moderated by John Dankosky, vice president of news at Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network, and host of WNPR’s morning news program, “Where We Live.”

Measured and thoughtful, Cobb and Friedersdorf explained to a crowd of more than 250 people their reasons for taking mostly opposing views on subjects relating to racism and free speech. While both agree the former is egregious and the latter necessary, they differ about how the two topics have converged.

Friedersdorf believes student activists are calling attention to important injustices, but they may be trampling on free speech in the process.

“I see some of these well-intentioned young people undermining the First Amendment, in one case spitting on people with whom they disagree,” he said during the event’s opening remarks, referencing an incident at Yale.

“They don’t understand how this part of their activism is both counterproductive and wrong,” Friedersdorf said.

Cobb, a University of Connecticut professor of history, doesn’t see these protests as simply a debate over free speech. Instead, he sees criticism of protestors as presumptuousness on the part of people who have never faced a particular problem when they attempt to dictate the calibrations of someone else’s sensitivities to that problem.

“It is the logic that says I, as a man, am in a position to tell women, ‘You’re overreacting to sexism.’ It is the argument that says a person who is in the majority understands the implications of what it means to be a minority,” Cobb said during his address at the event.

Cobb used many historical references to draw connections to these current-day protests. In particular, he noted how freedom of speech, which allowed for the making of “Birth of a Nation,” led to the reformation of the Ku Klux Klan.

There is free speech in the abstract, he said, and free speech that directly impacts lives, as did the resurgence of the Klan.

“Civil rights and civil liberties are often in conflict, and in a hierarchical society, freedoms and liberties can sometimes be used in ways which re-inscribe hierarchy,” Cobb said.

David Canton, associate professor of history at Connecticut College and the interim dean of institutional equity and inclusion, invited Cobb and Friedersdorf to the College.

“In numerous conversations with members from the campus community, it became clear that we should have more events that provide both perspectives of an issue. This model allows our students to see how two people talk to each other about race, power and privilege and not through each other,” Canton said.

Conn students actively participated in the event during the moderated Q&A. Chakena Sims ’16, involved with student-led discussions about race and free speech at the College, said that the event revealed how casual, everyday conversations about free speech are often oversimplified and superficial.

“After discussing free speech in the context of lived realities, free speech is far more abstract than what appears on the surface,” Sims said.

“The debate helped me unpack, on a deeper level, the implications of free speech, the relationship between free speech and marginalization, and, thanks to Cobb, how free speech functioned in different contexts throughout history.”

Sandy Grande, associate professor of education and director of the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity, which co-sponsored the event, noted how informed Conn students are about the national dialogue on race and free speech. 

“The students on this campus have consistently demonstrated that they are real scholar-activists, speaking from very informed places,” Grande said. “And they showed it tonight by their considered participation in the dialogue.”

The event was sponsored by the offices of the President, the Interim Dean of Institutional Equity and Inclusion, the Dean for Academic Support and the Dean of the College; Information Services; the departments of Africana Studies, Art, Education, Gender and Women's Studies, German and Philosophy; the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity; and the Toor Cummings Center for International Studies and the Liberal Arts; and the American Association of University Professors.

December 7, 2015