Urban must preserve free speech in the face of extremism

Jack Cogen, Opinions Editor

The Urban School’s commitment to free speech and promotion of its core values of diversity and equality do not have to infringe on each other, even in these divided times. On the first day of every school year, Head of School Mark Salkind speaks to the Urban School’s core values, about how the school was founded on the idea of an inclusive space, and how that commitment to diversity extends to diversity of viewpoints. In an age of increasing political polarization, that’s no easy thing to say.

Since the election of Donald Trump, protests and counter-protests and counter-counter-protests have become a regular occurrence, and extremist groups like the “alt-right” have risen to mainstream prominence. According to an American Broadcasting Company News/ Washington Post poll on August 16th, 10% of Americans say they support the alt-right, an explicitly nationalist and white supremacist group.

When listening to Salkind’s annual speech this year, for the first time in my four years at the Urban School I wasn’t sure how to feel about the prospect of accepting all viewpoints, to be tolerant of intolerance. Of course, there are ideological miles between mainstream conservatism and the alternative right, but it’s hard to draw the line at which point a view becomes unacceptable. Urban should and has recognized that white supremacy and other forms of bigotry should never be legitimized, but the rejection of extremism should never mean a rejection of free speech and open discourse.

“I think Urban has a lot of space for political disagreements,” Salkind told the Legend. However, that does not mean absolutely anyone can speak about anything on campus.

“Having people like Milo Yiannopoulos speak here, that’s not something we’re going to do,” Salkind said, referring to the recent controversy around a U.C. Berkeley student group inviting the alt-right figurehead to speak on their campus. “That said, you’ll find there’s a lot of room for different points of view in there,” he continued.

Clarke Weatherspoon, the Urban School’s Dean of Equity and Inclusion, shared similar thoughts. “Ever since we’ve started, we’ve wanted to be a place where many different people can enroll, and there’s going to be different opinions,” Weatherspoon said. “Our founding belief that treating everyone with respect is a core part of the school’s experience, and that not everyone wants to do that. If there’s a student, or there’s a family, that doesn’t want to treat people with respect, then this probably is not the right school for them. There are places that will say that they don’t want to treat everyone with respect, and those places are not necessarily hard to find.”  

Urban certainly isn’t preventing any opinions from existing. The First Amendment only applies to the government, and a private institution having standards of discourse isn’t completely suppressing an opinion as long as other establishments allow that opinion. However, free speech is not just a legal institution, it’s a cultural one. The Urban School prefers to focus on discouraging hatred rather than disallowing viewpoints.

“We don’t want our students to share sentiments, images, perspectives that encourage hatred towards anybody because that’s not what our school’s about,” Weatherspoon said.

The time period we find ourselves in may feel drastically different than even a few years ago, but that means we should stay true to our values rather than abandon them in response to those who want us to be afraid.

To Weatherspoon, the year 2017 is not a special case. “I would say that that [tension] is not unique to this political time. I mean, Urban was founded in 1966.” Our school was founded during the height of the Civil Rights Era, when the ideas of peaceful protest, free speech and combatting racism were even more on our nation’s collective mind than they are now. I asked Weatherspoon if he thought anything had changed in the United States’ dialogue.

“You know, I don’t.” Weatherspoon said, “And I wish that wasn’t the case, but I don’t think much has changed since then.”