Will Free Speech Double Speak Stifle Healing?

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My parents moved to Champaign, IL
when I was a small child in the early
1970’s and they have lived here since.
One of the ways in which they have
managed to make this community their
“home” is through following and supporting
the efforts of the Fighting Illini in
their athletic endeavors. I remember my parents taking me
to see football and basketball games and watching Chief
Illiniwek dancing during half-time. Historically both the
football and basketball teams have made a significant contribution
to the communities in Champaign County and
many residents, like my parents, don’t have to be alumni
in order to be fans. The rise of Native American mascots
coincides with the emergence of the Big Ten during the
great depression and, during that time, team spirit became
a mobilizing force for people.
When activists started protesting the use of Native American
mascots I just didn’t understand what all of the ruckus
was about. After all, I had seen the team spirit at the games
and found the dance of the chief to be uplifting. Years later,
a Native American woman I befriended simply asked me
how I would feel if the mascot of a university were presented
in blackface. That made me really think about the issue
from a different perspective. It’s not enough to state that no
harm is intended in the performance of a mascot—the simple
truth is good intentions do not justify hurtful practices.
It’s unfortunate that we see the current administration
supporting the Honor the Chief Society’s efforts to resurrect
the mascot under the banner of free speech. As an educational
institution the University of Illinois does have the
right to discipline any organization that engages in racist
activity. The “Taco’s and Tequila’s” party held at a Fraternity
and Sorority in 2006 is an example of this. If stereotypical
representations of Mexicans as entertainment are not
allowed on the campus, then how can the U of I justify the
usage of a Native American caricature as a form of free
speech by a registered student organization? This tendency
to turn a blind eye for the sake of appeasing a group of people
who just don’t get it makes it impossible for there to be
any kind of resolution to this particular issue.
Freedom of speech is a much admired and often misunderstood
right in the United States. As an individual I can
write a letter to the editor of a newspaper or magazine and,
in doing so, I am exercising my right to free speech. In
return the newspaper has the right to refuse to publish my
letter or to go ahead and publish with modifications. In
the event that my letter does not get published I can still
engage in my rights to expressing an opinion in other
ways. As such, the gatekeeper function assumed by newspapers
and websites are not violating anyone’s right to an
opinion or the right to express it.
After the U of I retired the chief the News-Gazette published
a book called Chief Illiniwek: A Tribute to an Illinois
Tradition and copies can be purchased at local bookstores
and it can be purchased online through Amazon.com. Personally,
I think it exposes the News-Gazette as a racist rag
that values profits over the dignity of Native Americans; yet
I am also willing to defend their actions as protected speech.
Many court cases dealing with First Amendment issues
have had to address topics that have ranged from issues of
libel to obscenity statutes. In doing so the judicial system
has managed to outline what freedom of speech is, or isn’t.
I can be critical of a public official and, as a public figure,
the official cannot sue me for libel unless I deliberately and
knowingly write false information with the malicious
intent of causing harm. Even then it’s hard to prove libel
under those circumstances. Public figures often don’t have
the same protections as private citizens in that regards.
Courts have also ruled that
communities can set guidelines
for how obscene materials are
distributed and made available
to the public. Some of the limitations
can include the age of
individuals who participate in
pornographic productions, the
age of the buyer, and statues
which adhere to the ‘community
standards’ of a specific location.
The judgment used by our court
systems have consistently noted
that there are reasonable limitations
that can be imposed on the
First Amendment.
Prior to the retirement of
Chief Illiniwek a post appeared
on Facebook that suggested
throwing a Tomahawk in the face
of a student activist. State Attorney
Julia Rietz refused to press
charges on the grounds that this
particular post is protected
speech and her decision was the
correct one. This is because there
aren’t any laws on the books,
which could have been used by
the State Attorneys’ office to pursue
criminal charges.
The Facebook controversy highlights how the Internet
has turned into an uncharted territory in the realm of freedom
of speech and press rights. As things stand right now
it’s up to website administrators to edit out potentially
offensive and inflammatory content. The internet is still a
recent addition to mediums of communication and only
time will be able to address issues such as what happened
over the Facebook controversy.
It is no real surprise to me that there is still a lot of
seething animosity over the decision made by the U of I to
‘retire’ the Chief. People who believe that the mascot is a
symbol which honors Native Americans and adds prestige
to the university feel angry and hurt by the sentiment that
Illiniwek is a racist symbol. As someone who grew up
amidst Illini fever, I can truly empathize with people who
have found the objections of activists to be an open challenge
to their feelings and belief systems. It will take time
before any real healing can begin and I hope the university
will carefully consider their role in this process.

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