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Free speech shredded: Syracuse University protesters tear down flyers for conservative speaker’s event

Yeonmi Park’s speech at Syracuse University raises concerns about free speech on campus
Syracuse University entrance sign

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Syracuse University students tore down event flyers ahead of North Korean defector and human rights activist Yeonmi Park’s speech on April 5, protesting her outspoken criticism of political correctness, trigger warnings, and woke culture. 

The College Republicans invited Park to share her experiences living under the communist Workers’ Party in North Korea and to discuss her observations of American political thought and dialogue since arriving in the United States in 2016.

Park is no stranger to making strong, sometimes unpopular, political statements. In her 2015 memoir, Park accuses the American education system of “brainwashing” children into believing the United States is racist. And in discussing her experience at Columbia University, Park claims she was subject to anti-Western sentiment in the classroom.

Free speech for me but not for thee? Destroying flyers does not further freedom of expression, it restricts it.

Of course, FIRE supports the rights of student protesters to engage in protected expression by, for example, asking tough questions during a Q&A, organizing a counter-event, or speaking out against Park and the College Republicans — which Syracuse students did in an online forum. But tearing down flyers in an effort to stop interested students from learning of and attending Park’s lecture stifles free expression and violates Syracuse’s guarantees of free speech.

This is not the first time the Syracuse College Republicans have faced censorial responses to their invited speakers. For example, after the organization secured funding from the student association’s finance board in March 2020 to host conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, Syracuse’s student government passed a resolution calling on the university to take “whatever measures are necessary” to prevent Shapiro from speaking.

Suppressing political viewpoints is a growing concern on college campuses generally and on Syracuse’s campus specifically. Freedom of speech, thought, and conscience form the foundation of open discourse and debate. 

Instead of attending Park’s lecture and pressing her with difficult, thought-provoking questions, objectors tried to suppress information about the event itself — in direct contravention of Syracuse students’ right to listen. While Park’s protesters apparently felt justified in their efforts to shut down what they deem hateful rhetoric, one cannot help but wonder whether they’d still endorse such tactics if their own speech was targeted in a similar way. 

Free speech for me but not for thee? Destroying flyers does not further freedom of expression, it restricts it.

FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re a faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).

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