Ruth Malhotra Letter Protesting Mistreatment at AASU Panel · 05 October 2006

Filed under: Georgia

TO: James K. Holder, II
President, African American Student Union at Georgia Tech

FROM: Ruth V. Malhotra

CC: Jared W. O'Neal (Membership Chair, African American Student Union);
Michael F.C. Moreland (President, Interfraternity Council);
Daranhdara Hun (President, Chinese Students Association);
Hannah Cho (Chair Emeritus, Black History Month);
Christopher A. Meullion (Chair, Black Leadership Conference);
Bjorn F. Cole (Political Affairs Director, College Democrats);
Kim Harrington (Advisor, African American Student Union);
Buck C. Cooke (Advisor, Interfraternity Council);
John M. Stein (Dean of Students);
Orit T. Sklar

SUBJECT: AASU Meeting on September 12, 2006

DATE: September 29, 2006

Dear Mr. Holder:

I am writing to you to express my deep disappointment and, quite frankly, my utter disgust in the way the AASU meeting on Tuesday, September 12, 2006, was handled. What was apparently supposed to be a "Forum on Free Speech," instead turned out to be an embarrassing debacle with a skewed panel, an inept moderator, and a rude audience. The glaring disparity between the way the event was initially portrayed to me, the way the event was advertised to your organization, and the way the event was actually carried out was most disconcerting.

The initial invitation I received from AASU came from your membership chair and panel moderator, Jared O'Neal. His letter stated the following, "For our next meeting we will be discussing the new free speech policy at Georgia Tech. I would be honored if you decided to come and give your reason why you believe that this is good." His invitation continued, "I promise that this is not something to bash your ideas or anything like that. We just really want to get a clear understanding of your side of the story."

I spoke with Mr. O'Neal and my understanding was that you wanted me to attend the AASU meeting and give a brief presentation to your members about my perspective on free speech and Georgia Tech's recent policy changes. After much consideration and counsel, I accepted AASU's invitation with the understanding that myself and my colleague (and co-plaintiff in our successful challenge to Tech's speech codes), Orit Sklar, would participate; we were both excited about the opportunity to share our viewpoints with you and your organization. We were willing to engage your group in a discussion even though we had anticipated that there might be many students who disagreed with us on ideological grounds and opposed our actions. We expected that the focus would be on discussing the issue of free speech and the merits of the case. However, it is now apparent that we were naïve to trust AASU and to take you at your word.

On Sunday, September 10, just two days prior to the scheduled event, I came across an advertisement for the meeting. The piece, clearly authored by you, stated: "Did you know that it is now perfectly legal for someone to call you a "N!gger" and Georgia Tech can do nothing about it?" It continued, "Free speech codes have been a very hot topic on campus in light of a recent lawsuit filed by some of GT's student leaders, to defend the 1st Amendment rights to Freedom of expression." The ad announced, "This week we will have a panel discussion featuring Myself (President AASU), Allison Graab (SGA President), and Ruth Malhotra (one of the filers of the suit)." Although the notion of a "panel discussion" was somewhat surprising to me, as this was not communicated earlier, I was completely appalled by the way the advertisement framed the issue in the first place.

The portion of the advertisement stating that, "it is now perfectly legal for someone to call you a "N!gger"…" was a very deceptive statement. The law has never changed, but rather Georgia Tech's policy has changed to comply with the law. Even under the unconstitutional speech code, saying the "n-word" in itself was never illegal, so the recent Court Order repealing the speech code has not changed its status. For you to use this as the primary statement to advertise the event reflects extremely bad faith and tremendous ignorance on your part.

On Monday, September 11, I confirmed our participation with the moderator, Mr. O'Neal. Ms. Sklar and I were prepared to speak about "Free Speech" on the panel along with the SGA President and yourself, as had been advertised and communicated to us.

When Ms. Sklar and I arrived on Tuesday, September 12, prior to the event, we were surprised to see seven chairs on stage, since we were not expecting seven panelists. What was even more atrocious was that you rudely informed us that despite having seven chairs on stage, there was no place for Ms. Sklar to be on the panel. We politely and persistently tried to explain that our agreement to attend was based on the understanding that we would both participate and present our views together. When I asked if you could simply add an extra chair on stage for Ms. Sklar, you informed me that the real reason she could not speak on the panel was because "that would make it unbalanced in your favor." I tried to reason with you, but you insisted that you wanted to "include several diverse viewpoints," that you did "not want the panel to be biased towards one particular side," and that there was "nothing we can do about it."

Furthermore, the flyer you circulated at the start of the meeting, which read "Free Speech? Or is it...," along with your refusal to hand out my literature before the meeting (which had also been agreed-upon prior to the event), were concerted attempts to show which side you supported. This hindered your audience members from analyzing the issue objectively and independently, even before the event started.

Despite the obvious deception from the AASU leadership, I decided to go through with my participation in the forum, mainly out of concern for the approximately 200 audience members that were present at the event.

When the panel commenced, I was very perplexed at the selection of panelists on stage. As you know, the panel, moderated by AASU's O'Neal, consisted of: Michael Moreland, President of the Interfraternity Council; Daranhdara Hun, President of the Chinese Students Association; Hannah Cho, Chair Emeritus of Black History Month; Chris Meullion, Chair of the Black Leadership Conference; Bjorn Cole, Political Affairs Director of the College Democrats; yourself, President of the African American Student Union; and myself.

With an audience of about 200 members, including students, professors, staff, and administrators, this was an excellent opportunity for AASU to present a scholarly debate about free speech and engage your membership in a thoughtful discussion about the issue. Sadly, it was anything but. This was a ridiculous debacle where virtually all the other panelists and audience members were incredibly vicious, extremely angry, and blatantly rude. Instead of discussing the issue of free speech and the merits of the case as I had expected and was hoping to do, the entire discussion was filled with irrelevant, inaccurate, and divisive rhetoric that had nothing to do with the issues at hand.

Analyzing the proceedings from a perspective of logic and argumentation techniques, it is clear that the moderator, panelists, and audience members did what people do when they are insecure about their beliefs - invoke emotion rather than debate the facts. Time and again, participants were fixated on this notion of victimization, as they told one sob story after another about their so-called "oppression" on campus and "disenfranchisement" in society. While I sympathize with individuals who have endured great challenges as a result of others not exercising their rights responsibly, the purpose of this panel was to debate the issue of free speech, not to share emotional diatribes and angry rants in an effort to compare who has been the most offended or discover who could claim the title of "Biggest Victim" on campus.

Several times in the course of the panel discussion as well as before and after the event, you and your members continually referred to what you called, "free speech codes." Despite my extensive involvement in the academic freedom movement, I have never once heard of these "free speech codes" of which you speak. I am very curious as to what exactly you mean, so if you could please enlighten me I would greatly appreciate it.

Following the panel, several AASU members in attendance communicated to me that the panel was an ineffective representation of campus attitudes on free speech, and some lamented the fact that I was the only panelist presenting a view against the speech code. Even panelist Bjorn Cole, one of my rancorous critics and a staunch opponent of our lawsuit, admitted that the event was extremely skewed. Writing about the meeting, he stated, "It was more or less Ruth against everyone (panel and audience) during the session."

I cannot help but conclude that your intention was never to discuss the issue of free speech, but rather to carry out a premeditated personal attack against me and my beliefs.

After everything I have encountered on campus, especially since filing suit against the school, I can handle challenges and I am not afraid to confront what might be considered hostile territory. I expect opposition and I believe I am strong enough to face even my toughest critics. However, when I interact with fellow Georgia Tech students and well-established organizations such as AASU, I also expect a basic level of intellectual honesty, professionalism, and respect, all of which were severely lacking at this event.

You were recently quoted in the Technique newspaper, describing this "panel discussion" as "one of our most successful meetings of the semester." If you define success as a one-sided fiasco devoid of issue-oriented discussion and intellectual diversity, then I suppose your analysis is correct. If however, you define success differently, then there must be a serious assessment of the consequences of your actions and a clarification of your basic goals. AASU's stated mission is to provide "uplifting and entertaining events while exchanging integral knowledge and culture to the entire student body, and to challenge each student to improve themselves through professional, social, and personal achievement, thereby positively impacting the community." This is a noble purpose, and I would urge the African American Student Union, under your leadership, to reevaluate your organization's actions and priorities, so that the methodology with which you operate is consistent with your mission.

The more I reflect on everything that transpired in the course of the discussion, the more I think that the AASU forum was -- as my colleague and co-plaintiff Orit Sklar has said in an article about this event -- "a microcosm of the atmosphere that the Institute is trying to maintain." It was clear that you wanted complete control of the ideas presented, you stacked the deck in order to appear victorious, you selectively enforced the guidelines for the panel discussion, you invoked emotion rather than debating fact, you ignored constitutional law in favor of perpetrating myths of victim hood and oppression, you treated those who disagreed with you with contempt and disdain, and you disregarded any attempt to promote intellectual diversity. If this is what you consider a success, it speaks volumes about AASU's moral and ethical objectives, and you should be ashamed of yourself and your organization.

The primary purpose of my letter is not to convince you of the merits of my lawsuit, but rather to express my deep disappointment and disgust for the way the AASU event was handled. However, since I did not get an adequate chance to express myself at the panel and explain the ramifications of the case developments, I will take this opportunity to do so.

The recent Court Order repealing Georgia Tech's speech code is really a victory for all students and should be celebrated by everyone as a vindication of their right to free speech. It is obvious that many of our hostile critics, including some members of AASU, seem very bitter about the ruling and are attempting to direct their anger towards us in an extreme manner. The repeal of the speech code is being seen as something that will now promote attacks and insults on individuals, when it reality it will give us the right to debate ideas without fear of censorship or punishment. I sometimes wondered why the campus reaction was such and why so few people really understood the issues and could intelligently debate the merits of the case, however now I know. With such a debacle as was the AASU forum on free speech, it is obvious that many students such as yourself have no desire to debate these ideas, but rather to attack individuals who you do not agree with. It is yet another clear example of who is truly being intolerant.

As Orit Sklar stated in her article, one of the ideas proposed at the forum was a "Speech Code Task Force" for Georgia Tech. Thankfully, as a result of our recent legal victory, I do not think this proposal will get very far. A federal Judge recently ordered Georgia Tech to repeal the unconstitutional speech code with no future policy changes without judicial consent, and with this win for free speech, students no longer have to worry about being censored or punished for expressing themselves on campus.

Whereas I have no desire to silence opinions I disagree with, under the speech code the school and politically powerful campus groups including AASU had unbridled discretion by policy and by the nebulous standard of "being offended," to suppress any speech you simply found "intolerant." None of us has a right not to be offended. It is the duty of the Institute to protect expression, but apparently Georgia Tech and organizations such as AASU believe that your ideas are not strong enough to withstand scrutiny and that is why you wish to silence us, as demonstrated in your so-called "Free Speech Forum."

The campus Left, as typified by the African American Student Union at Georgia Tech, tends to use terms such as "hate speech" and "verbal assault" to describe speech not in line with your orthodoxy. This is disingenuous. Orit Sklar and I did not sue for the right to "injure, harm, malign, harass, or denigrate" anyone. We sued for the right to enjoy basic First Amendment freedoms, and we will continue to exercise our rights the way we always have: peacefully, politely, and respectfully. The fact that others, including some AASU members, do not exercise their rights responsibly is not reason enough to deny them to everyone.

~ Ruth Malhotra