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Upholding Liberties: Free Speech at YU

In my second year of YU, a friend encouraged me to write for the YU Beacon, an online publication run by members of YU’s undergraduate community. The publication was created as a response to allegations of censorship aimed at the Commentator and the Observer, after several students wanted to publish articles that had been rejected from those papers on the grounds that their content was too offensive. The YU Beacon intrigued me, and, after some thought, I decided to get involved.

I joined the YU Beacon as the editor of its Features section in October 2011. The staff members seemed energetic about their stated mission, and I felt like I was part of a community. The goal of the YU Beacon was to promote free speech, allowing for a free and open dialogue amongst everyone in the YU community, especially for those who once felt as though they had no voice.

Of course, many things changed a couple of months later. After we published an article that described a young Stern student’s encounter with premarital sex, the YU administration and student council called on us to take the article down. We flatly refused. From that point on, the YU Beacon lost funding from YU and endured a challenging yet ultimately encouraging period of change and identity transformation. Shortly after this defining moment in the publication’s history, I took over as its managing editor and soon became editor-in-chief. Under the guidance of Simi Lichtman (née Lampert), the Beacon gathered writers from around the country to join in our mission: promoting freedom of speech in the younger Orthodox community at all costs.

I remember my first serious struggle upholding free speech, when a friend published an article about his seemingly controversial views on the Holocaust. I was yelled at, screamed at, and attacked both online and in person for publishing the article. In fact, the BBC even came to interview me about the experience. Throughout the ordeal, I constantly questioned my personal motives behind working for such a publication, and I often doubted myself. How could I promote an opinion that I completely disagreed with?

I remember watching a debate featured on Fox News regarding Columbia University’s decision to host Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a speaker. Inevitably, many people--most of them hawkish Israel supporters-- believed that Columbia was evil for allowing it. But one news anchor on the show, Megyn Kelly, stood apart. She defended the university’s decision and even highlighted it as an example of America’s special type of freedom of speech. Many of us recall learning about the famous Nazi rally in Skokie, Illinois, where the marchers were allowed to assemble under freedom of speech despite much protest. What was reaffirmed in the Columbia case was that our legal system doesn’t discriminate against public speech in really any form (aside from libel).

Perhaps Washington, D.C.’s National Mall--that large expanse of land between the Washington Monument and the Capitol--is the greatest material testament to this uniquely American version of free speech. Throughout its history, the Mall has served as a platform for one gathering after another, a place where Americans have assembled to express themselves on many of our nation’s most defining (and controversial) issues. The Civil Rights movement can claim that land as the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. declared I Have a Dream. Or modern feminists can use it to remember the famous women’s suffragist marches in the early 20th century.

The National Mall attests to the fact that our founding fathers not only believed in allowing for freedom of speech--they even provided a platform for that freedom to be exercised. But not every event held at the National Mall has advocated for agreeable positions. Many years prior to the famous Rabbis’ March in support of victims of the Holocaust, the KKK notoriously protested in the same space. And other nefarious groups have used the Mall as a platform, too. “There ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered,” said John Stuart Mill. Upholding freedom of speech means upholding it in even the most difficult of times. It means upholding freedom even when it hurts, even when you think that only an immediate bad can result from it.

While the American legal system encourages free speech, most of the world does not. Especially in our community, the Modern Orthodox Jewish community, I sense that freedom of speech is constantly called into question, as though its very premise must be constantly justified. Often the advocates of religious censorship claim that certain issues should be discussed in private--but all too often they’re not discussed at all. That a 30-year-old sexual abuse case remained silenced until now is a travesty for both our people and our religion.

Leading The Beacon has shown me the pressing need for free speech in our community. And while an authentic American version of this freedom may seem lacking in the Jewish world, hope is on the way. Even in YU, student leaders have become more vocal in speaking their positions, without the fear of retribution from above. Several articles in this year’s Commentator have excellently highlighted that. In order to understand the complex conditions surrounding those in our community, it is crucially important to first give everyone a voice, their own “National Mall,” in which to speak. I pray that the courageous work of the writers and journalists at this university can be used to help both our broader Jewish community and the world at large.