Francis: Free speech means nothing if nobody listens

I began speaking at age one. According to my mother, I started having a lot of things to say around the age of one and a half. I am pleased to say that for the past 21 years, I've been able to speak quite freely and without any real restrictions, save for the censorship of a few choice four letter words that will still, to this day, earn me the "Death Stare" from across the kitchen table. This is why, I must admit, I was a little confused when I first ran into the Geneseo Free Speech Movement (GFSM) on the College Green.

If you're like me, the first time you heard the members of this movement on campus there were probably two thoughts that ran through your head: "Why are they shouting at me?", and "I could have sworn the First Amendment already took care of all of this." Apparently, even though freedom of speech is afforded to all Americans by the Constitution, the members of GFSM feel that it is imperative that they express this and protest anyone who may say otherwise. Who am I to denounce someone else's cause? What I will say, however, is that despite the mass appeal of their message, the GFSM is receiving somewhat of a lukewarm welcome. Now, I hardly believe that students and faculty at Geneseo are against the idea of free speech, so it is my opinion that some of the methods employed by GFSM are rubbing people the wrong way.

Although I trust that their intentions are noble, the GFSM has the tendency to come off as abrasive to many students. By standing on the ledge that surround the Green and using a megaphone to voice their convictions at students as they walk to class, the main outcome they achieve is alienation. The beauty of the First Amendment is that everyone has an equal voice. No one person's or group's voice or beliefs should dominate another's.

A more productive and user-friendly approach for the GFSM to look into would be trying to facilitate discussion amongst the student body as a way to open up a more uninhibited dialogue on campus. What anyone will tell you however, is that in order to have a discussion with someone it takes equal parts speaking and listening. Ask some questions. Don't let it be a one-sided conversation. I believe that if the members of GFSM went out amongst the students and simply asked them about their beliefs concerning issues like the war in Iraq or government censorship, most would be more than happy to share some insight. Responses may be limited however, as most students who pass by are on their way to class. For this reason, it may be more productive for the GFSM to set up an event where people can go to have conversations and civilized debates concerning the prevalent issues in today's society.

Although it may not be realistic to engage students in conversation on their way to classes, it is realistic to believe that the students of Geneseo would like an opportunity to make their voices heard and make a difference. It is also realistic to believe that an event to provide students with an outlet for their beliefs, ideas and grievances would be well-attended and appreciated.

The members of the GFSM have the right idea. It is necessary to shatter the image of the "apathetic student" and make the voices of our generation heard. It is time however, to break free of the label of "angry protestor" and join the ranks of activists. Don't overwhelm and intimidate students because they will simply tune out and disconnect. Espouse all student beliefs and ideals. If the move is made to really understand Geneseo's students, not just the ones that share your same ideas, you can better understand how to reach them. The only difference between a protestor and an activist is action.