Satire and Sensitivity Challenge Free Speech

 

By Gerry Boyle '78
 

A Web site posting that authors said was intended as satire of Colby students' involvement in"and indifference to"campus efforts to combat genocide in Darfur provoked an angry firestorm of debate on campus in April.

The disagreement erupted after one group of students, Colby for Humanity, posted a notice on thefacebook.com, a Web site used mostly by students looking to meet other students. There Jamie Manzer '06 and Alexander Tallett '06 urged students to contact their elected representatives about the ongoing killings in Sudan. "With national interest comes government intervention," they wrote. "Please, do your small part to save lives."

That was mocked by a similar posting, this one declaring: "Genocide in Darfur! Who gives a S*&#?"

In the paragraph that followed, students were told they couldn't make a difference, and should stop trying. "I could be making seven figures by the time I'm 30, thinking about genocide is a real downer. Where the hell is Darfur anyway?"

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Students, faculty, and staff gathered on Miller Library steps to speak out about the controversy surrounding a Web posting regarding genocide in Darfur.
Photo by Nilanjana Dutt '05
That posting prompted an angry response that culminated in a "speak-out" on the steps of Miller Library, where authors Brad Kasnet '05, Steven Bogden '05, and Patrick Semmens '05 defended their actions in front of some supporters and a larger throng of critics.

The posting was satire, the three said, and not intended to criticize those who work for humanitarian causes. It should have been considered in the context of thefacebook.com, where group postings often are done in jest, they said. In a subsequent column in The Colby Echo, where he was news editor, Kasnet said he regretted offending anyone. "To get at what I was really satirizing," he wrote, "I feel that on this campus there is a significant pressure to conform politically."

That explanation didn't mollify many students, including Andrei Roman '08, who wrote a counterpoint column for the Echo. "Is it right to satirize human suffering?" Roman wrote.

At the library speak-out, students and others denounced the "satire" and demanded an apology. Huseyin Akturk '07 told the group that he had worked for six months in a UN refugee camp in Swaziland and he saw no humor in the posting. "I think there is a fine line between satire and being evil," Akturk said.

Manzer, who posted the original notice, said that if the trio intended to prod apathetic students, the writers had chosen the wrong vehicle. "I don't think satire is the best way to attack apathy," she said. "The best way to attack apathy is activism. So let's see more of that."

The debate widened to include faculty and administration, including President William "Bro" Adams, who reminded the Colby community that the free expression of ideas and points of view, especially on difficult topics, is essential to the Colby mission.

"But the commitment to free expression is not without consequences," Adams wrote, noting the obligation to consider the feelings of others. "At some point, we should all expect to have our deepest convictions challenged in unsettling and disturbing ways. We should also insist that these challenges be reasoned, decent, and respectful."