Campus free speech movement raises eyebrows, draws criticism

GENESEO, N.Y. - The Geneseo Free Speech Movement (GFSM) has made their presence on campus known over the past few weeks. The group works to promote freedom of speech, but not all students have responded positively.

According to members of the organization, GFSM is a decentralized, grassroots, direct action group committed to bringing people together in order to create change in local and global communities. Members of the movement have cited silence and apathy as their primary motivation, and claim administrative attempts to limit free speech on campus as the catalyst for their actions.

Members also stated that GFSM is interested in bringing pressing issues to light, whether they be campus, community, national or global, and "are no longer comfortable living in a silence that implies a certain degree of complicity in the injustices of our world."

Last year on the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, a student group put 1000 carnations in the College Green in memory of the fallen on all sides of all foreign and domestic conflicts. According to GFSM, President Christopher Dahl approached the students to say that permission should have been asked before the event was held. Dean of Students Leonard Sancilio was then said to have explained to the students that while they were encouraged to organize, demonstrate and rally, the administration would limit the free speech zone to the College Union patio. The GFSM member, who asked to remain anonymous, stated that Sancilio said, "We can't limit what you say, but can limit where, when and how it's said."

This has been disputed by prominent figures in the College administration. Dean of the College Susan Bailey said she wasn't even aware of the movement's purpose. Sancilio claimed that he was unaware of any grievances toward the College held by the group, and that he didn't know of any incidents of suppression of speech by the administration. Vice President for Student Affairs Robert Bonfiglio also stated that as far as he knew, the movement has not met any opposition from campus administrators.

"To my knowledge there are no College policies that restrict students, faculty, or staff members (or anyone, for that matter) from assembling on the College Green," Bonfiglio said. "In regard to the allegation that free speech has been suppressed on campus, I can tell you that I have never received any grievances from any students alleging that free speech rights have been abridged by the College administration," he added. Bonfiglio also stated that he would be eager to look into any specific incidents of suppression if there were any complaints.

The group first took action on Oct. 16, standing on the corner of the College Green by Erwin Hall with a megaphone. Twelve days later, the group's banner was stolen and burned by students at a Halloween party on North Street on Oct. 28. The students responsible for the theft and vandalism of the banner wished to remain anonymous, but stated that they didn't burn the banner as an act of hatred, but more out of annoyance at the group's style of presentation.

Other students around campus have expressed similar points of view. Senior Adam Kehoe stated "Their message is fine, but I think they are politically inept. Standing with a megaphone on a corner tends to alienate people." He described their actions as coercive and confrontational. "They may have a great message but I personally think their movement will fail unless they build a base," he added.

Junior Chris Petty stated that the group's own message has backfired on them. "The protest is aimed at proving that the administration will shut down any attempt at speaking out anywhere not designated for such actions, but by not responding at all the administration has totally proved them wrong and made them look silly," Petty said.

The irony associated with the destruction of the group's banner must be noted, as the act of incineration can be described as an act of free speech in itself. According to members of the group, "GFSM believes in personal autonomy, and the individuals who chose to steal, and later burn, GFSM's banner were exercising that autonomy. Geneseo, as a community, should let these people know whether or not this type of action is acceptable." Upon hearing news of the vandalism, the group was not surprised. "Random acts of theft, violence and property destruction are nothing new on Geneseo's campus. Burning a banner belonging to a free speech movement has very interesting, if not disturbing, implications, but we don't know of any GFSM sympathizers/members who felt personally affected," they stated.

GFSM's second banner has also been taken from its spot on the College Green twice. The first time it was taken on Nov. 10 by campus facility services in an attempt to clean up the campus for the opening of the Integrated Science Facility. The banner was not thrown away, and was later retrieved from facilities services by a GFSM member. The same banner was taken again that evening by an unknown party.

Group members stated that they will continue meeting on the College Green "until we see visible changes in our community" on topics such as a more vocal campus, a safer campus, and a stronger sense of community responsibility and accountability. They added that "Even then, we will continue to congregate, to speak out and to stand in solidarity with those around us and those who remain voiceless as victims and survivors of oppression."