Wednesday, August 1, 2018

In Age of Trump, Pepperdine Weighs Validity of Free Speech

Pepperdine Professor Christopher Soper and the Intercultural Affairs office openly question the importance of free speech to a democratic society.

Article written by George Stefano Pallas. Democratic socialism and incivility practiced by the author are his alone and do not necessarily reflect nor should be construed as those of the Author.

For many Pepperdine University students, the Sandbar is a welcoming safe space to grab a $6 smoothie from Jamba Juice, retrieve the mail if they’re lucky enough not to have classes, snap some sunset selfies for their Instagram stories, and enjoy some hot beverages not from Starbucks while listening to all-acoustic covers of Disney songs during coffeehouse nights. Some have even gone so far as to call the Sandbar a “Third Place,” though this label may appear vacuous to any homeless man who tries to take a nap on the couches therein and is promptly evicted by DPS officers.

Unbeknownst to most frequenters of the Sandbar, the building also plays host to the communications of the Intercultural Affairs (ICA) office. ICA holds chief responsibility for “build[ing] a diverse community of respect, learning, understanding, equity, and inclusion.” As part of this mission, the department has reserved tickets for students to see Black Panther on opening night (under an event subtitled “Deconstructing Black Mythos”), sponsored bus rides to the 2017 Women’s March in L.A., and hosted various events on gun control and immigration enforcement.

The ICA office has a wall set aside at the rear of the Sandbar, nearby the restrooms, that changes in content roughly every month to reflect topical news items or subjects. For example, in celebration of Black History Month, the ICA wall featured several photos of African American artists who have made great strides to advance music as an art form. The artists spotlighted on the wall included Chance the Rapper, Drake, Beyonce, Lauryn Hill, Kendrick Lamar, and J. Cole, among others.

In the middle of April, the theme of the ICA’s corner turned to freedom of speech, concurrently with several Pepperdine clubs that were reevaluating the virtues of that same right. Several posters were taped to the inside of cabinets, juxtaposing arguments in favor of free speech with arguments opposing it.

The display repeatedly called upon the reader to ponder the appropriate treatment of offensive speech, asking, “Are all forms of free speech acceptable?” “Should free speech apply for individuals in positions of power?” and, “Is there a difference between free speech and hate speech?” In the case of the last question, the author of the pro-free speech argument seemed to acknowledge the existence of Hate Speech but contended, “There is no free speech when banning hate speech… because the definition would be subjective.”

Contrarily, the anti-free speech argument insisted that Hate Speech is “not the same thing” and “should not be protected under the law.” The second text pointed to Germany for support of its position, commending the country for banning the expression “Heil Hitler” as Hate Speech. The poster neglects to note the successful, recent sentencing of a U.K. YouTuber named Mark Meechan, who was arrested and convicted of “grossly offensive” behavior for filming and teaching his girlfriend’s dog to raise a paw upon hearing, “Sieg Heil.”

The Sandbar display concludes with an appeal to contact the ICA office, university chaplain, or counseling center “if you have experienced Harm by the speech of others.”

The Sandbar exhibit on freedom of speech only symbolizes one component in a university-wide reexamination of the issue enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. On April 9, 2018, the Convocation Office of Pepperdine held an hour-long event called “When Speech Hurts: Intersections of Faith, Speech, and Wellbeing,” in which four faculty members shared their views on freedom of expression, fake news, and constitutional limitations.

One of these panelists, Distinguished Professor of Political Science Christopher Soper, led by saying, “I am not a free speech fundamentalist,” and elaborated that some forms of speech should not be allowed because they “undermine self-governing democracy.” Dr. Soper received a PhD in political science from Yale University and currently teaches such classes to Seaver undergraduates as “Constitutional Law” and “Religion and Politics.”

When the conversation turned to an upcoming campus visit by Ben Shapiro, Dr. Soper said that he would not condone accepting Richard Spencer or Alex Jones to speak at Pepperdine, opposing the latter radio host on the basis that he “denies” the narrative of the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting. Asked what students should do to prepare for a controversial speaker such as Mr. Shapiro coming to a sold-out event, Psychology Professor Nivla Fitzpatrick advised the crowd to go about all their daily routines, stay calm, and “let other people who speak up know that you stand with them.”

Both of these evaluations of free speech closely follow a trend at Pepperdine of reappraising the value of open discourse. In late 2015, BSA-affiliated students called the value of the liberal principle into question by appealing to President Benton to ban the since-defunct Yik Yak app on the grounds of the university, which is attended by more than 3000 voting-age adults. The campaign stemmed from anonymous texts allegedly posted by a student that were critical of the Black Lives Matter movement.

University Chaplain Sara Barton would later weigh in on a similar object of controversy, using her freedom of speech to publish a poem on the Freedom Wall denouncing the freedom of speech exercised by someone else. We covered Barton’s social protest and the abasement of the Freedom Wall generally back in 2017.

Pepperdine’s annual tuition currently stands at $53,680, an increase of 3.7% over the previous year and not including rent, which totals between $1450 and $1625 a month for a shared bedroom.

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