Mumia Abu-Jamal and Real Threats to Free Speech

Oluwa Jones '15 Contributing Writer 

Students at Goddard College, a liberal arts college in Vermont, chose imprisoned former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal to give their commencement speech on October 5, via pre-taped remarks. Abu-Jamal has been in prison since Dec. 9, 1981 when he was sentenced to death for killing an officer. He was later taken off Death Row after successfully proving his trial was unfair. Many believe in Abu-Jamal’s innocence and his claims that he is one of many victims of our nation’s racist criminal justice system have not fallen on deaf ears.

His intelligence, along with his writings and prison radio, have made him an international celebrity and well-known activist. The students at Goddard who voted for him were supported by their Interim President Robert Kenny, who angered many by saying,Choosing Mumia as their commencement speaker, to me, shows how this newest group of Goddard graduates expresses their freedom to engage and think radically and critically in a world that often sets up barriers to do just that.” 

Last semester a group of students organized protests against Smith’s decision to choose Madame Christine Lagarde as our commencement speaker. Many students, mainly students of color, opposed Lagarde because of her involvement with the IMF. Students who supported her argued that she’s the first female president of the IMF and that that’s a significant enough achievement that we can depoliticize her work and give her an honorary degree. Many argue that it’s important to be mindful of where her success comes from.

Lagarde is director of an institution that forces reforms on developing nations that fail to give women more control over their lives. Debates about Lagarde tend to evolve into meta-level discussions of what makes someone a feminist. A lot of students were also concerned with theoretical conversations on what the tenets of third wave feminism are, what they purport to be, and what messages the administration espouses, as opposed to what their true feelings are. Some even argued that these conversations were counter-productive and that feminism is about coming together. Still others would argue that nuance, and accepting complexity in a movement, is crucial.

Whomever the administration chooses as their commencement speaker is someone they’re implicitly telling students to emulate and aspire to be. At Goddard College the message was that students should speak the truth to empower and reach out to the voiceless. One could make an argument that our administration was telling us that female solidarity is possible through an erasure of global and intersectional forces.

Somehow the scope and politics of the problem got reframed around protecting free speech. Speech is at the core of the problem, but it’s important to be mindful of what legitimate free speech is, and what speech is meant to be generic advice and uplifting platitudes on a day where many are too filled with nerves and jitters to pay attention. We value free speech not because it is a good in itself, but because of its benefits. Those benefits are the exchange of ideas and political freedom. This often includes things we may not like, such as hate speech (like white women saying the n-word 12 times on a panel), or sexual expression (such as Smith’s Convocation).

This raises questions of what exactly silencing in. Is someone with the freedom to make the decision to not give a speech after finding out she’s unwelcome an example of silencing? Right now the Vermont legislature is working on an unconstitutional law called “The Crime Victims Act,” which would make it illegal for those guilty of a crime to speak out publicly.

The intent of the bill is to silence individuals like Abu-Jamal from telling their stories or speaking out against the system that wronged them. This law is in direct response to what happened at Goddard. This is what a real violation of free speech looks like, and this what we should be afraid of. Silencing is something that happens to those who dare to speak out against injustice, not wealthy status-quo affirming imperialists.