Alexis de Tocqueville famously praised newspapers as democratizing associations. “A newspaper,” he says, “is an advisor that needs not be sought out, but comes of its own accord and talks to you briefly everyday about the commonweal.” Like Tocqueville, I believe that newspapers, especially when they are diverse and localist in their focus, can serve as a linchpin of liberty. This is, in part, why I helped found the Swarthmore Independent, and it’s why I respect the spirit behind Swarthmore Overlaps, even if I disagree with the new publication’s message.
But in their attempt to document “a glimpse of the earlier history of student struggles and resistance at Swat,” the editors of Overlaps perpetuate a false representation of a disgraceful incident of censorship during the fall of my freshman year. In their inaugural issue, Overlaps reprints a 2010 Daily Gazette editorial, titled, “Students Criticize Braun’s Defense of Conservative Flyers.” The article accuses my freshman self of employing “toleration” as a “shield” in an effort to spread “extremism.” Because Overlaps proposes a review of Swarthmore history, I’ll provide a little of my own:
When I arrived at Swarthmore in the fall of 2010, I fancied that politics were mostly irrelevant; I wanted to be a poet and take religion courses. But I was so taken aback by the one-sided leftism on campus that I decided to join forces with Tyler Becker ’14, the only conservative I knew at Swarthmore, in order to found a conservative club. We had talked about starting a College Republicans chapter, but we both agreed that we wanted our group to foster a more discussion-based and intellectual approach, rather than focusing on the electoral rat race.
At the time, I knew very little about conservatism in America (as I said, I wanted to be a poet), I and decided to call the group the Swarthmore Young America’s Foundation, figuring it would be less divisive than a Republican-sponsored group. I was vaguely aware of the national Young America’s Foundation (YAF) and had received a few materials from them in the mail, but I had no intention of taking my cues from the national organization. Looking back, I should have anticipated the problem of sharing a name with a national body, but, again, I was a freshman who didn’t know of any upperclassmen or faculty who might have offered this guidance. Other groups, like the Swarthmore Students for a Democratic Society, had appropriated a nationally-affiliated name without a problem.
That November, I printed—and paid for—a number of flyers to advertise my proposed group. The most-distributed flyer was a picture of Barry Goldwater under a banner that read, “It’s the Economy Stupid,” borrowed from Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign slogan. Others included a critique of Che Guevara T-Shirts, one that sought to expose the contradictions of twentieth-century communism, and one that questioned President Obama’s first two years in office. Because I was eager to comply with Swarthmore’s postering policy, each flyer was signed with my name and email—a choice which later backfired and encouraged a series of personal attacks on my character and intelligence.
In hindsight, I realize that my posters lacked a concise and coherent theme, and in the short term, undermined my goal to found an intelligent right-of-center political organization at Swarthmore. But my freshman naïveté was certainly no reason for censorship—which is what happened next. Within 48 hours, most of the flyers I’d posted had disappeared, only to be replaced by parodies that equated conservatism with an attack on human rights. The parodies were so close to the font and images of the originals that I initially assumed a like-minded student had simply distributed more of them. But these new flyers had replaced my text with a call to deny people jobs and housing and other “basic rights.” Many students were understandably confused and outraged.
Upset and isolated by a string of Facebook posts that called upon me to transfer, I scheduled a meeting with Karen Henry, who was then my class dean. From there, things stalled until I met with Dean Braun, who, like me, had just arrived that fall. When she realized the extent to which an anonymous group of students had gone to remove and replace my flyers, Dean Braun issued a campus-wide email that called the incident a “community concern” and reiterated that “[b]eing part of a diverse and inclusive community means that within the college there will always be a wide range of ideas, perspectives, and beliefs.”
Sadly, Dean Braun’s generic call for pluralism wound up doing more harm than good. Some students who were, up to that point, unaware of the postering kerfuffle quickly Googled the Young America’s Foundation and, after perusing the site’s conservative content, decided, in this case, censorship was appropriate.
This is where the Gazette editorial entered the fray. The authors, James Mao and William Lin, both juniors at the time, insisted that “[I]n trying to defend SYAF’s freedom of speech, Dean Braun’s email represents the protection of extremism, the silencing of attempts to address such ignorance, and the astoundingly easy manner in which the administration has been maneuvered to speak in defense of this group.” For Mao and Lin, “The issue here is how a student group representing extreme views can blitz the campus with its message, then run to the administration when the all-too-predictable backlash occurs—and then find shelter from the administration!” Moreover, Mao and Lin write, “Free speech cannot exist where freedom, or even the desire for freedom, does not exist. Tolerance at Swarthmore can only be reactionary, a shield to hide behind when the terms of debate become too threatening.”
In this conspiratorial retelling, I had anticipated that my flyers would be defaced, torn down, and parodied in a grand scheme to win Dean Braun’s protection. Alas, if that had been my plan, it certainly wasn’t successful. I would up being openly criticized in the official minutes of a November StuCo meeting where representatives insinuated that Swarthmore didn’t have a free speech problem, if only I would transfer or keep my mouth shut.
Over three years later, the whole incident approaches comedy. But at the time, it was intensely painful and alienating.
Both the original editorial and the version in Overlaps are printed alongside pictures of three controversial posters, with the obvious suggestion that the posters were indeed too offensive to permit on our campus. However, none of these posters ever appeared at Swarthmore. Instead, the authors had downloaded a series of YAF-sponsored materials to demonstrate the extent of my backwardness. They spend half of the editorial explaining why the posters are “reductionist” and guilty of conflating identities. Perhaps that’s true. But I had never seen the YAF flyers subsequently associated with my name. They hadn’t been posted at Swarthmore at all. Though, of course, even if those unsavory flyers had appeared, there would still be no justification for censorship.
This gets back to the message Overlaps is sending. What exactly is the point of reprinting the 2010 editorial? Do the editors see a connection between my being censored as a freshman and my “clap-down” at the May Board Meeting? Do they think the administration has a nefarious pattern of protecting conservative students? The Swarthmore Conservative Society and Swarthmore Independent have no affiliation with outside groups like YAF and have long since retooled our message on behalf of Swarthmore’s unique group of conservatives, libertarians, and moderates.
By reviving one of the most painful incidents in my Swarthmore experience, Overlaps frames past and present activists as majoritarian bullies interested in silencing anyone who dares to disagree.