The Course of Reason

Exploring “Thoughtcrime” with a Free Speech Day at SUNY Oswego

April 13, 2011

The SUNY Oswego Secular Student Alliance hosted their second Free Speech Day to remind students not only that they have the right to express themselves, but also that their voices are powerful.

On April 4th, the State University of New York (SUNY) at Oswego Secular Student Alliance hosted our second Free Speech Day, an event designed to remind students not only that they have the right to express themselves, but also that their voices are powerful. Our previous event, in conjunction with International Blasphemy Rights Day on September 30th of last year, was controversial; I personally had to answer to an administration that had no grasp on the concept of a "free speech event" and who were reluctant (to say the least) about allowing it to happen. But happen it did, and the event proved so popular that I was often asked if we were planning to hold another one in the future.


SOSSA poses with last semester's banner

Originally, the plan was for the Free Speech Day to be an annual International Blasphemy Rights Day event; however, due to student demand, the Secular Student Alliance quickly agreed that another day should be planned for the Spring Semester as well. The date we chose, April 4th, is significant for two reasons: first, it's the day that the events in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four begin; second, on that day in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the very personification of the Civil Rights movement in the United States, was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.

This year, we chose to focus on the broader implications of "thoughtcrime" as a means of encouraging the students to question whether or not free expression truly exists on campus; also, because this event is still relatively new to SUNY Oswego, we wanted students to begin to recognize how powerful their instinct to self-censor truly is. The two most common responses students gave when prompted to participate were, "I can't think of what to write," and "I can write anything?" Next year's event on this date will be an opportunity to reflect on the legacy of Dr. King and how he gave his life so that others would finally have the power to speak for themselves.

This semester's event proved to be very successful, garnering over 150 comments which ranged from the silly (numerous fraternity and sorority shout-outs) to the sublime (a respondent drew a colorful diagram demonstrating the "perfect Long Island Iced Tea") to the serious (including a few essays on the writers' feelings about current events). As trivial as many of the responses we collected may seem, it is more important that students know that they are free to say what they want, rather than feel that free expression is reserved only for important statements. It is because of these statements that our hope is that, as a result of these events as well as those to come, we are able to encourage students to be more willing to express themselves openly and without reverting to self-inflicted censorship. Our ultimate goal for this project is to make the SUNY Oswego campus one where all voices are heard, and none remain silent.

 

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