There is something very Potemkin-like about the idea of an institution sponsoring the protest of its own policy. Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia has been accused of siring ersatz opposition parties in order to solidify the hegemony of the ruling United Russia party, and both Democrats and Republicans here at home have been known to support the use of oxymoronic “free speech zones” at their national conventions. One would hardly expect, however, for an institution purporting to, in the words of the College’s mission statement, “[encourage] students to respect ideas and their free expression, and to rejoice in discovery and in critical thought” to embrace this borderline Orwellian practice.
And yet, in our view, that is aptly descriptive of what transpired last Tuesday night on the steps of Memorial Church, when University President Drew G. Faust addressed “DADT Repeal Speak Out” just hours after leading the very event—the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Naval Reserve Officer’s Training Corps office in the Student Organization Center in Hilles—that the former was designed to protest. The incongruity of the spectacle was best encapsulated by attendee and lecturer Timothy P. McCarthy ’93: “The University is in a bit of pickle or queer situation where they have to mark both [NROTC’s return and students’ dissent].”
The student dissent for which the Speak Out was intended to serve as an outlet concerned the administration’s decision to, in light of Tuesday’s expiration of the military’s eight-year-old “don’t ask don’t tell” policy, re-embrace NROTC in spite of the persisting prohibition on the enlistment of transgender individuals. However, the strategic management of student dissent by the College was in fact an act of suppression of such dissent, as the Speak Out was deliberately scheduled far away from and long after the ribbon-cutting ceremony, discouraging students from voicing their opinions at the real event itself. Furthermore, the very fact that the protest was University-sponsored implies that it was, in the end, little more than a fruitless sideshow. This practice is expected of political parties at home and abroad, but we expect better from a university administration.
The unencumbered manifestation of student dissent may at times be ugly to see, but the unequivocal permission of it is a pillar upon which this university—and indeed the ideal of free expression in general—is founded. Especially critical is for free expression to be unencumbered at an event celebrating the United States Armed Forces, whose members swear in their Oath of Enlistment to, among other things, “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Let us never forget that the First Amendment to that Constitution guarantees the right of those who would wish to protest at an event commemorating those who fight to uphold their right to do so.