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Not Everyone at Emory Got Salman Rushdie’s Important Message About Free Speech

Acclaimed writer Salman Rushdie spoke to students at Emory University last week about what it means to defend freedom of speech and why students must vigilantly do so. Though his plea was well-argued and powerful, it didn’t reach all Emory community members—particularly not whoever destroyed a display set up by student group Emory Students for Justice in Palestine (ESJP) Sunday night and Monday morning.

In his final lecture as University Distinguished Professor, Rushdie reflected on his own experiences, from assuming in 1968 when he graduated from Cambridge University that “the battle of free expression had been won,” to facing death threats for writing The Satanic Verses two decades later. He urged students to vigorously defend their rights, even as he acknowledged that many young people accept or even ask for censorship.

Rushdie made several key distinctions lost on too many students, professors, and administrators lately, noting that he’s “in favor of good manners” but that his disposition does not negate “the liberty to say what one thinks, even if people don’t like it.” And while individuals are free to decide not to listen to ideas they don’t like, or not to watch movies or read books that might offend them, anyone who values freedom of expression should recognize that it must apply also to expression of which they disapprove.

Emory relayed Rushdie’s points on the “News Center” segment of its website:

“That’s not the boundary, that’s the starting point,” [Rushdie] said. “It’s really easy to defend the right to speak of people that you obviously agree with or to whom you are indifferent.”

The true test of tolerance is when somebody says something that you disagree with, but you can still defend as free speech, he noted.

That is democracy, Rushdie said. “It’s not polite. It’s not a tea party. It’s a rough-and-tumble affair. It’s an argument. It’s permitting others to say what you think is unsayable … If you want it, that’s the price of the ticket.”

Rushdie warned his audience: “The future is yours. Don’t screw it up.”

Just days later, someone (or a group of someones) screwed up. Emory’s student newspaper The Emory Wheel reported Tuesday that ESJP members twice returned to where they had set up their display, a wall presenting their viewpoint on Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, to find that it had been torn down.

Emory Senior Vice President and Dean of Campus Life Ajay Nair wrote in an email to students that “[t]he destruction of the display runs counter to our community’s commitment to debate and dialogue.” He also reminded them that “Emory University unequivocally affirms that our community members have the right to open expression without interference.” Nair asked students to consider that some expression may upset others, but aptly proposed that the community “deliberate ideas, ideologies, and policies with which we disagree, rather than target individuals or groups with whom we disagree.” Additionally, according to the Wheel, a leader of the student group Emory Hillel called the wall’s destruction “counterproductive” and made clear that Hillel did not support the vandalism. It is not yet apparent who is responsible for the destruction of the wall.

The Wheel reports that the Emory Police Department is investigating the incident as well.

This is the right response. Vandalism is not a protected exercise of freedom of speech, and students should not be silencing their peers by destroying property. Instead, students who disagree with ESJP can add their voices to the conversation by, for example, setting up their own wall or handing out leaflets countering the arguments made by ESJP.

Those who missed Rushdie’s speech last week have another opportunity to learn from his wisdom; he’s slated to deliver the keynote address at Emory’s commencement ceremony on May 11. FIRE hopes that if he addresses the issue of freedom of speech in May, everyone pays close attention.

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