NEW PALTZ - Several fiery speeches from members of the SUNY New Paltz community, captured the risks that compromising our First Amendment rights could pose to the discourse at our university and within our country at large.
Despite inclement weather, the Free Speech Rally crowd was receptive to a slew of speakers of from across the political spectrum. A range of student and staff speakers made clear the ripple effect that chilled speech can have in a democracy.
“If you are not outraged, you’re not paying attention,” said Psychology department chair Glenn Geher, who heads SUNY New Paltz’s Free Speech Task Force. “This is what allows me to stand here now and tell you how outraged I am. The First Amendment is what allows me to stand here and criticize the government.”
Geher framed his defense of the First Amendment within the context of a local immigration case involving New Paltz resident Joel Guererro, who has been subject to deportation since the recent change in administrations.
Geher’s impassioned words were followed by an empowering speech made by philosophy professor Eugene Heath. Heath spoke on the role the university plays in our political process and the value of having many different ideas represented in the campus environment.
“You are not here to be told what to think or to be browbeat about what not to think,” Heath said. “If there are persons at this university that tell you what not to think, humor them. Be assured, however, that they are not trying to help you learn.”
Heath’s speech was followed by adjunct Professor of Political Science Lloyd Constantine. Constantine had a long career as a litigator, including appearances before the U.S. Supreme Court, prior to joining the SUNY faculty. Constantine discussed the importance of listening to opposing viewpoints and drawing your own conclusion.
“There is what I believe to be a very strained and tortured idea of free speech here at New Paltz,” Constantine said.“There are those who believe that students here need to be shielded from controversial speech,” Constantine added, in reference to the faculty response to Cliff Kincaid being invited to speak on campus last spring. Constantine posits: had we, as a community, been more open to a diversity of opinion, progressives may have been less surprised when the election was over.
Jack O’Brien, editor-in-chief of The New Paltz Oracle, outlined the importance of freedom of speech and expression, freedom of inquiry and thought, along with freedom of the press in preserving a healthy marketplace of ideas.
“I’m from as right-wing a town as you can get, most professors know that is where I stand.” O’Brien said. “Before I even came here, people asked me ‘are you sure you want to do that? Isn’t that a little too liberal?’ and I said ‘no’ because I wanted to challenge myself.
“I’d hope my counterparts on the left would do the same thing, but I know that’s not the case. People come here and they dig into the homogeneity. They don’t challenge themselves.”
The rally closed with remarks from Jackson Shrout, an arts and entertainment copy editor at The Oracle. Shrout spoke on the advantages of hearing a diversity of ideas and how they shape his own view of the world.
“Without exposure to different ideas I never would have understood the underpinnings of my own political ideology.”