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Free Speech at a High Price

Student gets probation for free speech

Published in St. Louis American, August 25, 2016

Christopher Winston
Christopher Winston

When Christopher Winston returned to Saint Louis University this semester, I’m sure it didn’t shine with as much promise as it did the previous year. That’s because last semester, Winston was hit with what some may call slander and a harsh penalty for questioning human rights abuses by the Israeli government against the Palestinians.

Winston showed up as the only African-American student to a forum by the Jewish Students Association (JSA). He raised questions about the occupation of Palestine and specifically about the attacks on the Palestinian Red Crescent attempting to provide medical responses to Palestinian community. There was a bit of verbal jostling, but nothing that rose to the level of a physical confrontation, based on watching a video of the encounter and talking with Winston.

Still, about a week later, this black student received the equivalent of a summons and a restraining order. A complaint had been filed by two members of the JSA, Scott Lasky and David Weinstein. During the non-violent verbal exchange Lasky and Weinstein said they felt – you guessed it – concerned about their “safety and well-being.”

As a result, Winston told me that he was charged with being involved in a bias incident and with disruptive conduct. He appealed the charges to no avail and remains on probation until the end of next year (2017). Should he violate the conditions of his probation, Saint Louis University is ready to smack him with further sanctions.

This situation is just wrong on so many levels.

How does one side get to make accusations without the other party being interviewed or the accuser having the right to confront his accusers? Does the answer to this question lie in the respective races of the two parties? I would give an emphatic yes!

What happened to the concept of academic rigor and freedom? Universities and colleges like to tout having environments where both students and professors are encouraged to engage in discussion and debate about current issues. Does the answer to this question lie in the fact that Palestinian human rights were at the center of this controversy? I would give an emphatic yes!

Because someone asked a question about Israeli policy doesn’t make them anti-Semitic.

Is a year on “paper” too harsh a sentence when the so-called crime is asking a series of legitimate questions? What punishment did the white SLU baseball players get when they used their chat group to call President Obama a “watermelon-eating baboon”?

All of this is happening as the Saint Louis Clock Tower Accord gets negotiated. These are the 13 demands coming from students (and supported by many community groups) involved in the protests and occupation of the campus clock tower area back in 2015 in the wake of police murders of unarmed black citizens like Mike Brown.

As someone who advocates questioning authority, I find this kind of repression of free speech and biased punishment offensive.

I encourage young people to challenge the assumptions, stereotypes and downright lies that come to them under the guise of education. Like that slavery was a good thing for black people. Like that Christopher Columbus “discovered” a place where indigenous people were already living. Like women need to work harder to make up the current income gap. Like. Like. Like.

Campuses are a microcosm of our society, and they can serve as great laboratories for practicing and promoting true democratic principles. They are fertile grounds to learn how to fight racism, sexism, homophobia and Islamophobia in the world outside the insulated campus.

If this institution of higher learning is serious about reflecting its own Jesuit mission of providing its students with a “highly rigorous and deeply transformative education,” it may want to rethink the case of Christopher Winston. Otherwise, it looks like his education lesson is to keep his mouth shut, stay in his place and shuffle along for the rest of his black life.


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