To the Editor:
The kind of protests and debate on campus prompted Bryan Stascavage’s op ed criticizing Black Lives Matter is hardly unprecedented at Wesleyan. It has so often been a healthy hotbed of debate on cutting edge societal issues. As an alumnus (’85) and former Argus editor in chief I am deeply proud of that. Unfortunately, it also isn’t the first time a controversial decision on the part of a student run institution has resulted in a call to undermine that offending party. The op ed, whether you agree with it or not, whether you find it offensive or frightening does not justify the undermining of a student run institution, which is meant to be a place to learn hard lessons about journalism and train students for life beyond the campus. Moreover, the drastic cut in funding of the Argus is frightening in its implications for freedom of the press and the tradition of free debate at an institution of higher learning.
In the fall of 1984, Wesleyan was gripped by a heated debate about the funding of an appearance by the Muslim African American minister Louis Farrakhan, who was invited to speak on campus by Ujaama. Mr. Farrakhan was to receive an honorarium fee out of the organization’s proposed share of the College Body Tax Fund (in addition to a $1000 loan to be paid back from proceeds of the event). Many students felt Mr. Farrakhan’s comments about Jews, especially his reference to Judaism as “a gutter religion” and Hitler as “a great man” meant student money should be withheld. Many students felt those comments were meant to incite violence. Others felt this was a freedom of speech issue and Ujaama should be able to use its money to invite a speaker of their choice no matter whom it offended.
A student petition protesting the allocation for the Farrakhan honorarium called for an unprecedented campus referendum on the student budget as a whole, which had been approved by the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA). Literature and posters supporting each point of view plastered the campus. Some posters were ripped down by the opposing side, creating more tension. As was reported in the New York Times, death threats from the Jewish Defense League (JDL) were made against students associated with supporting Ujaama’s funding of the event, as well as administrators. As the editor-in-chief of the Argus, whose editorial board supported the event, I was one of those threatened.
The student budget was shot down by 57% of the 1087 students who voted (three times as many students voted than in any other WSA election). The WSA rocked the campus by passing the budget regardless of the referendum. The assembly said it had weighed the rights of individual students and against majority opinion and came out in favor of protecting the minority. Mr. Farrakhan came to speak that April without incident. Many healthy questions were raised that fall, including: Does denial of funding constitute a freedom of speech issue? Does a student elected assembly have the right to overturn majority opinion? (The WSA in lieu of a judicial body on campus has often assumed that role.) It was a fast-track education in governance for many of us.
Yet, shockingly, once the WSA had made its decision, there were calls for the dissolution of the assembly, which was being called by some “The imperial WSA.” To many the WSA had shown that it no longer represented the entire student body. In the end the call for abolishment died down. And it was replaced by a call to reform certain aspects of the assembly’s process. But I found that initial call to be the most frightening aspect of the entire fall. Emotion fueled decisions, no matter how seemingly justified are a force against democracy–and now threaten freedom of speech and the press at Wesleyan.
I was proud to have student assembly that stood for justice back in 1984. Now I am embarrassed by the current assembly’s decision to undermine a newspaper that may or may not have made a poor choice we all can learn from.
Lowenthal is a member of the Class of 1985.