Impressions on Expression

A Pair of Rhodes College Free Speech Updates

Impressions on Expression

Khulan Erdenechimeg and Ben Reynolds

The Campus Vs. E.H:

Sitting down with the “British girl” as the rumors circulate across the halls…

Khulan Erdenechimeg

As you probably know, the rumors about “The British girl” controversies have been circulating around the campus for quite a while. Starting with the headlines in DailyMail about her questionable patriotism, followed by the notorious screenshots of her using offensive language, as well as the short video of her drawing the swastika on TikTok, the scale of her controversies escalated quicker than fire. A couple of weeks ago, Ben Reynolds and Khulan Erdenechimeg from The Sou’wester started their treacherous journey of investigation. After many attempts of trying to get perspective from the faculty, we gave up and decided to present the two main sides of the story: The Campus vs E.H. 

Jake Sanders is one of the students on campus who’s been following the story from the start. Sanders’ first interaction with E.H was friendly. However, about a week later, he started hearing about the rumors. “Everything that’s been happening definitely has taken a toll on her, which seemed upsetting, but at the same time, I’m like ‘Alright, well, you know, what do you expect is going to happen?’ …I strongly disagree on the political spectrum for where she stands. I know that a lot of people do as well, that’s shown by the fact that we talked about it while we’re eating Rat food at the lunch table”

Is she that scary? We met her in person and were left with an hour-long interview that took us some time to transcribe. 

In Her Words

E.H is a sophomore exchange student from the U.K. She styles herself in rather old-fashioned clothing and carries a personalized leather bag. When we asked about her infamy back in Britain, she explained. “Rule Britannia”? It’s pretty much “God Save America” for the Brits, she says. The student council of Aberdeen University, which she was later temporarily kicked out – therefore making headlines in the news – was debating the concerns about the presence of the British Army program on campus. “It’s much like what we have here at Rhodes,” she mentions, perhaps referring to the ROTC program we have on campus. The line from the old British anthem was part of her response when the club students discussed banning the program on campus. The screenshots? She mentions that those are from three years ago. It was a product of months-long getting-bullied-turned-into-a-spiteful-revenge, which just happened to resemble an extreme form of hate speech. “I thought ‘I’m going to think of the vilest things I can say to you, to hurt you just as you hurt me’, so I said some disgusting slurs to them, which I will not repeat as a 19-year-old. I was immature.” The Tik Tok video of her drawing the Nazi symbol? “I was 16, and what was going through my head was ‘let me think of the most messed up thing I can do to make people laugh on this platform, which was being edgy in an era when shock humor was popular. I’m not proud of it; I wouldn’t do it now.’” I see. Then, I wondered, is she a wholly changed person who accepts all liberal ideas? Not entirely. She’s still an outspoken British conservative with Christian values. Sometimes even a “moderate” who believes in the balance between collectivism and individualism, she clarifies. You decide for yourself. Scrolling through her Twitter page will tell you about it. 

When I asked if some of the Tweets she posted would be considered hate speech, she replies: “Which ones do you mean, specifically? I would say I have a presence on the internet. You could say I’ve got quite a following. I used to be quite popular on TikTok… I’m not bragging. But you know what I mean? It’s like, I have an influence. So it is quite follower-based.” I told her that I personally found some of them problematic. She disagrees: “I wouldn’t say what I said was racist. That’s not my ideology” — lots of her posts are “not supposed to be taken seriously”, you see. Those people who interpret it that way are “looking for something after they heard [her] being labeled racist on campus”. Interesting. She then elaborates her point – she accuses students who preach tolerance and open-mindedness of “virtue signaling” when faced with someone “who doesn’t share [their] same values and… beliefs.” I rephrase this: people are almost trying to get offended so that they can prove their moral correctness. I wonder if Sanders feels the same. “I mean, you can show the hypocrisy of these people who are generally left-leaning because there’s a lot of times when people reach back in someone’s history and pull stuff out to put them down. And that’s not fair. People grow up and change,” Sanders says.

E.H says she’s experienced “racial abuse towards [her] ethnicity as a British woman” on Yik Yak ever since her controversies got uncovered. Perhaps. The other British students on campus were clearly affected by it. Some made statements, some suffered quietly. We obviously don’t want to respond to hate with hate. What do we do, then? After weeks of Yik Yak posts and whispers in the cafeteria halls, it seems that we’re finally getting our campus spirit together. Sanders’ suggestion for the campus community is to “overcome it.” “There are probably faults on both sides here. Going through her Twitter page, and then just taking stuff out and shaming her for it, even if it’s something that is shameful is unproductive. She might have a lot more to say than just a Twitter post, which limits to only a few hundred characters. Instead, have an actual discussion where people are looking to actually learn and be curious. It’s a natural human reaction to be impulsive, but we need to form a legitimate objective opinion. And if that legitimate objective opinion is the same as your impulse reaction, then that’s fine since you got there by doing the proper research.”

The Dilemma

But the question still stands. As we have a conversation, where do we draw the line between hate speech and free speech? In Sanders’ opinion, the line is “when your beliefs actually infringe on human rights or people’s ability to kind of just exist as themselves in the fringes as something that is genuine hate.” E.H claims “people have the right to say” anything that isn’t actively “advocating for violence against people” with “different ideologies… or beliefs.” Her definition later expanded to include “psychological harassment or bullying.” We concluded that they seem to be on parallel pages, at least when it comes to hate speech. However, Sanders suggested another point: “dumb speech.” Dumb speech is “putting your beliefs into a group of people who are the epitome of the opposite of those beliefs — the people that it’s definitely going to upset or offend. You’re saying things just to get a reaction. We shouldn’t want dumb for hate speech, you know.” He concludes, “Maybe we are jumping on E.H and restricting her ability to have free speech, but maybe she is crossing the line between free speech and ‘dumb speech’, or even hate speech, which is a step further. So, I think defining that as a community is very important”. 

Report Card: 

Administration did their homework on talking. Let’s talk about that.

Ben Reynolds

On October 2nd, 2020, a committee assembled by then-President Marjorie Hass quietly published a 44-page “Expressive Speech Report” regarding, in its words, the state of “inter-group dialogue” at Rhodes. The document, lost in the shuffle of a virtual fall semester, generated a few conversations about free speech upon release. Given our student body’s reignited passion for expression, however, its findings have never mattered more.

The Free Speech and Civil Discourse Working Group, composed of Rhodes administrators, professors, and students, was tasked in 2019 to “review… policies related to expressive speech, harassment, and the use of social media” at Rhodes and on other private campuses. Their research was comprehensive— members sifted through scholarly perspectives, student polls, campus speech codes, and America’s complex string of free speech lawsuits, condensing 18 months of research into a report equally descriptive and prescriptive.

 International Studies professor Amy Risley and Chief Information Officer José Rodriguez, co-chairs of the group, claim students choose Rhodes in search of a “challenging… and supportive environment in which to learn and work.” Only when its members are free and encouraged to challenge and support one another, they argue while narrowing the goals of modern colleges, can such an environment thrive. Free speech, therefore, stands as a pillar of “critical thought” on college campuses, a necessity for any school intent on exposing students to the world’s diverse, oft-contentious perspectives. Engaging with these freely-expressed alternative opinions, whether communicated by a professor, a guest speaker, or another student, should challenge you either to adjust your reasoning or communicate your beliefs more persuasively. The report agrees that the freedom to “question others’ views as well as our own” is invaluable for colleges seeking to “advance knowledge and understanding”– when people speak freely, most scholars cited in the document agree, everyone learns.

But does unlimited speech leave everyone on a college campus comfortable enough to learn effectively? The report cites thinkers and incidents which question the “inclusivity” of absolute free speech, doubting the “inherent value” of a policy so easily used to make others feel unwelcome in a community. Speech can be profoundly uncomfortable– a racist remark in the Rat, a sexist comment in class, or a poorly-reasoned political take on an Instagram story have all left me questioning Rhodes’s relatively-non-restrictive expression policies. A less hateful, more inclusive campus is a noble goal, but the college free speech debate often frames itself in a “false dichotomy” of inclusivity and expression. The report’s central claim minces no words regarding these terms: to better include the historically-muffled voices of minority students on college campuses does not require censorship of active voices. 

Risley and Rodriguez note that unlike public institutions, private colleges aren’t beholden to the First Amendment. Rhodes could suppress or censor any speech it wanted– the college could punish anything judged “oppressive” or “demeaning” by some campus officials, but the subjectivity of “harmful” speech would quickly prove impossible to judge. Rather than allowing an “endless succession of claims and counterclaims” to play out, each with the burden of establishing who harmed whom, with what language, and with what motives, the report settles on a more efficient and just series of recommendations.

Risley and Rodriguez first recommend that “actual threats and words that are clearly intended to threaten or instill direct and immediate fear” should serve as the high and specific bar for hate speech on campus. Hate speech has no legal definition in the United States, leaving individual colleges responsible for setting their own standards. “Flexible” hate speech rules, in addition to being difficult to “navigate,” offer fallible administrators undue room to overpolice speech. A less egregious opinion might make you unpopular among certain dissenting groups, and Rhodes reserves the right to publicly condemn a student’s or professor’s statements, but merely controversial speech shouldn’t get you punished through the college. The working group also recommends emphasizing “civil discourse,using national workshops on open-mindedness and respectful disagreement to praise disciplined and productive conversations. This opinion echoes Jake’s point about “dumb speech” — though you may reserve the right to offend someone, it’s a right better used to reason with them. As important as the need for polite conversation, however, is simply the need for more conversation. The report reasons that “inclusion should involve addition rather than subtraction.” Again, instead of overregulating speech, the group implores Rhodes to offer more opportunities, through town halls, lectures, or even a certain student newspaper, to direct our speech towards truth.

So speak, Rhodes College. Speak respectfully, of course– we’re a community of people, diverse yet universally worthy of respect– but speak persuasively, reasonably, and more passionately than those with whom you disagree. Speak directly to those dissenters and welcome dissent– E.H. knowingly harbors some unpopular views, yet she claims she’d be “happy to talk” to Yik Yak rumormongers, taking full advantage of Rhodes’s lenient speech codes to “develop [her] own ideas.” Speak because the world threatens constantly to speak over you, over all of us, if we fail to advocate for ourselves and our passions. Speak now, on this unique campus, and never hold your peace.