Defamation versus free speech on our campus

by Lehi Naseem, Contributor

Speak out. Voice your opinion. Get involved. You’re safe.

Students of San Diego State University have become familiar with statements like these. Plastered on bulletin boards in hallways, enlarged on websites promoting student involvement on campus, and spoken by faculty members we admire and respect.

But where has this encouragement left many of our students who are speaking in defense of controversial topics such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement?

Over the past few weeks, several students who have been politically active regarding the BDS movement on campus have been publicly accused of “allying” themselves with “Palestinian terrorists” on a flyer that was circulating around campus created by the Horowitz Freedom Center.

To which President Hirshman responded by sending out a mass email explaining the consequences that come with expressing personal political positions.

The vague email continued to simply advise the accusers to abstain from discouraging the named students from continuing to participate in political discussions on campus.

While also reminding the students who were personally targeted that they are “responsible” for the viewpoints they convey and should be prepared for criticism.

There was no explanation about the flyer. There was no condemnation.

Several students saw the injustice in Hirshman’s brief and inadequate email, including A.S. Board of Directors member Mustafa Alemi. Alemi helped organize the silent protest on April 27 in hopes of receiving a proper response from Hirshman.

He explained that the protest began as a silent group within chambers but slowly grew into an upset crowd of students who were shocked at the way Hirshman simply ignored the small group.

“He politically sidestepped and failed to address the issue,” Alemi said.

He felt “disappointed” in Hirshman’s initial response and also his behavior towards the students involved in the protest.

Hirshman didn’t feel the protest was an appropriate way for them to express their concern about the situation. But how else would students who have been constantly encouraged to speak up and fight for what they believe in respond?

I understand that he may have been tiptoeing around the actual issue because he was avoiding what seemed to be a limitation on the rights of free speech on campus.

However, I don’t understand how defamation of character could be mistaken as free speech in this particular situation. Students specifically named on the flyer were accused of having connections with terrorists. This was more than words of discouragement; this is an example of pure, unadulterated slander.

Instead of condemning the flyer and defending the named students, Hirshman avoided their concerns for weeks. And the students felt that the protest was the only way they could gain his attention.

After ignoring the protesters for over an hour, Hirshman finally apologized for “inadvertently” upsetting students.

While students understand that activism comes with criticism, they would hope to have a sense of security when it comes to situations that endanger their character and possibly their lives.

Hirshman’s inadequate response towards the situation was a clear indicator of how unprotected they truly were.

Students are speaking out, they are voicing their opinions, they have been involved, but they do not feel safe. Free speech has been stifled on college campuses before, but punishment for defamation is not equivalent to impeding on students rights.

However, escaping the concerns of distressed students most certainly is. Even if it was only committed inadvertently.

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