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Letter to the Editor: ‘True freedom of expression’

Dear UNH Community,              

Two weeks ago I put on a Richard Nixon mask and came to the UNH Democrats protest with my friend ‘Harambe,’ touching off a political firestorm rather larger than I expected. We wanted to lampoon the absurdity of protesting a completed election, so we picked meme-inspired costumes that were absurd but couldn’t reasonably be considered offensive, and we brought along pacifiers to tease the protestors for their overblown reaction to the election.

When we arrived, some protestors laughed, a few with ‘Free Hugs’ signs gave us free hugs even though we were there to tease them, and one student came up to us with some sharp and funny questions, asking how we’d feel if our rights were under attack and we couldn’t do things like buy guns. At that point I was impressed with every student we’d met. I thought we’d underestimated the UNH College Democrats, and that they truly did believe in love, inclusivity and tolerance. I even felt bad that I gave a pacifier to the girl with the sharp questions who wanted to have an intelligent discussion. It was Democrats-1, Trolls-0.

But it didn’t end there.

The director of the OMSA walked up to us with a smug smile and several times called us ‘ignorant’ and ‘cowards’ because we declined to take off our masks. Can you blame us? Here’s what UNH professors wrote in their demands:

“No critically thinking person can say that people supporting and people opposing Donald Trump are ‘equal.’”

“Somebody knows who these two students are.”

“Time to call for an investigation leading to the expulsion of these students.”

Are these the role models we have to look up to? How backwards is it when students can hold discourse, but our staff and professors want to muzzle anyone who dares question their agenda? Why do I have to hide my face to be able to make a statement? I was seriously worried after the protest when the professors were calling for my head. I hid Facebook pictures that could have linked me to the Dick (Nixon) pics and told anyone who knew about our stunt to keep their mouths shut. And this was for a joke, not even a political statement! What happens when we say something of substance that offends them?

I’m grateful for the responses that have been pouring in from across the nation, pointing out the hypocrisy of the attacks on us. However, I absolutely condemn hateful messages directed at any member of the UNH community.

Do you know why the national response to this story was so strong? It touched on a real fear across America: that universities like ours are training a generation of Robespierres who see political dissent as thoughtcrime which must be silenced by any means. I thought free speech was a foundation of our nation that allows every citizen to build their beliefs in an open forum, to reason with, and to understand one another. When did free speech become a right only for the ‘enlightened’?

I applaud President Huddleston in his messages when he states, “The first principles of any university must be freedom of thought and expression,” and I second his condemnation of anything “rude, vulgar, and vitriolic.” I believe he has been fair in his responses, and is doing an excellent job trying to allow all sides to speak openly.              

I won’t be sharing my name. I don’t believe there is yet true freedom of expression on campus when there are professors and administrators who don’t believe I have a right to be here because I have views that aren’t in lockstep with theirs, and they are just waiting to target my friends and associations. I wore a physical mask for a brief protest, but students across campus are masking their beliefs because they don’t feel they can share them without being vilified. I would prefer to have open and personal conversations, but the threats against us make that a terrible option. When I considered going public, the advisor of one of my organizations was concerned that the backlash would damage our ability to operate on campus, and my sister who is applying for work in the arts told me, “They will throw out my resumé if they read that article.”              

Finally, one UNH lecturer declared, “The masked students were a silent threat.” Are we a threat to your stranglehold of ideology in the classroom? I hope so. Are we a threat to the dignity, rights or safety of any minorities or the vulnerable? No. Obviously.

This letter was published anonymously. Check out the
editorial on page 11 to learn more.

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