Caution: Controversy (may be) Detected

Newton South’s excessive fear of contention has led to silenced voices

graphic by: Isabella Xie

By Kimia Tabatabaei, student intern and head of Newton South Peace Action 

The Latin phrase, “Bona mens omnibus patet”  — “A good mind is open to all things” —  wraps around South’s school seal. For a school that takes pride in fostering an environment of thoughtfulness and tolerance, has South fallen short of its goal?

A dangerous cultural trend has emerged in our school: rather than welcoming the exchange of contrasting opinions and encouraging critical thinking, we have begun to over prioritize preventing controversy and sheltering opinions.

On Sept. 21, I asked a Newton South High School administrator if I could invite Phyllis Bennis to speak to our student body during the school day.

Bennis was going to discuss the political and refugee crises in Syria and emphasize the importance of student activism in today’s complicated world.

Invited by Tufts, BC and Brandeis to give the same speech, Bennis was visiting from Washington D.C. for a brief three-day speaking tour in Massachusetts.

As the director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, a project focused on steering U.S. policies away from militarism and towards peace, Bennis has devoted her life to fighting for justice. She is considered a public expert who has served as an adviser to top United Nations officials.

But no one was allowed to hear this prominent intellectual speak. South did not allow me to invite Bennis through my club, Newton South Peace Action, for fear that her speech would incite potential backlash from members of our community.

Phyllis Bennis was not invited because she firmly believes that the equal human rights of Palestinians and Israelis must be prioritized over political preferences. At at this point, both one- and two-state solutions should remain on the table, however, any decision should be made by the two parties themselves and not by the U.S. government. She has expressed her expert opinions in several articles criticizing the Israeli government and U.S. involvement in the conflict.

This incident is mainly unfortunate because students were deprived of the opportunity to learn, from an expert on the topic, about the ongoing, devastating conflict in Syria that is extremely complex, highly misunderstood, and misrepresented in the mainstream media. This would’ve been an opportunity for the school to show the importance of becoming knowledgeable about global issues and the benefits of discussing important current events.

Bennis’ viewpoints on several issues are inarguably ones with which many residents of Newton might disagree. However, her speech had absolutely nothing to do with the Israel Palestine conflict, and yet because administrators deemed her past comments as being controversial, she was not permitted to come  to our school.

The Deputy Legal Director of the Boston branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, Sarah Wunsch, expressed her disappointment with what happened here at South. She explained to me that in the Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment applies to public schools and that school officials can not censor student expression unless it clearly disrupts the educational process.

The right to freedom of expression includes the freedom to receive or listen to an opinion, whether we agree with it or not.

The Freedom of Expression Act is essential to guarantee a civil, democratic and tolerant society. As sophisticated, educated individuals, we should not be denied the opportunity to listen to an opposing viewpoint, scrutinize it, and come up with our own judgment. It is not the administration’s prerogative to silence certain voices.

How can any of us be expected to think critically if our school perpetuates a climate of intellectual conformity?

Among a school’s priorities is managing an academic space in which all students feel safe and respected. However, trying to coddle every person’s feelings is both unreasonable and unsustainable. When we leave the overprotective “Newton bubble” and enter the real world, will we remain in a shell of insecurity, fearing the possibility that people will have opinions with which we don’t agree? Or will we rise up, hear the other person out, prepare to engage in a thoughtful debate and learn that there are many sides to every story?

I do believe that the administration has done a good job creating a balance between freedom and order in our school, as shown by the variety of clubs at South; the administration makes an effort to allow students to express themselves within their own small circles.

School administrators felt that Bennis’ speech would cause controversy and discomfort in our community.

Still, according to Wunsch, this fear is not a legitimate reason to prevent a talk from happening, because controversy does not equate to disruption.

There is no harm in listening to a speaker. There is no danger in thoughtfully debating a topic. There is no threat in respectfully disagreeing with an opinion.

In the Tinker Case, the Supreme Court held that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

This powerful statement still applies today. By not allowing Bennis to speak, our constitutional rights have been violated. Our rights outlined in the Massachusetts “Right of Students to Freedom of Expression” act have been violated.

In my clouded jungle of emotions, one feeling remains prominent: disappointment.

I am disappointed in the administration for censoring a magnificent speaker. I am disappointed because I have grown up thinking that in a vibrant democracy and in an academic environment, criticism of a government should be tolerated rather than silenced.

Above all, I am disappointed in this growing culture of intolerance towards ideas outside of the mainstream.  I do acknowledge that, compared to many other parts of the nation, Newton is a place where, for the most part, diverse thoughts are encouraged – which is why I have higher standards for us as a community.

Rather than opening our ears to hear the other people’s opinions, whether or not we agree, we have cultivated an environment in which certain voices are devalued and brushed aside.

We must prove to the school that their reservations are ill-founded. We must be open to opportunities that allow us to think critically rather than only to those that reaffirm our beliefs. We must show that we do have the capacity to listen and to disagree in a way that’s productive and not divisive.

As citizens of this country and as students in a school that values open-mindedness and critical thinking, we should engage in difficult conversations and observe multiple perspectives.

Within the Bill of Rights lies our ability to push back. In a time of polarization, it is up to us, as students and as citizens of the “Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave,” to be the champions of free speech.