Conservatives are being painted as "Islamo-Fascists" at George Washington University, and some people don't want the school to do anything whatsoever about it. I'm all for free speech, but there is a subtle distinction between critical dialogue and harassment.
This past week, members of George Washington University's Young America's Foundation were the subjects of an anonymous poster smear campaign. The posters are a fake invitation to "Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week" and headlined in big bold letters, "HATE MUSLIMS? SO DO WE!!!"
(Photo from YAF.org)
YAF issued a statement explaining that they saw the posters as an "attempt to paint all conservatives with a broad brush of racist xenophobia." The university is taking the situation seriously, and initiating an investigation.
However, there are some, such as Adam Steinbaugh and Brynne Madway with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, who feel the university is taking things too far. Their published letter to the Senior Associate Vice President for Safety and Security requests that the school "immediately and publicly abandon its efforts to identify the satirist(s) responsible for the flyers," because to do otherwise would be a threat to free speech.
According to FIRE's own reporting, this isn't the first time YAF has been criticized via these exact posters. Back in 2007, the YAF leaders of that time actually did plan an "Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week." Steinbaugh, who wrote the initial FIRE article, justified the 2007 incident as being a satirical, controversial protest protected by free speech. He extended this excuse to this 2017 incident because it was the same posters.
But let's be real: We're dealing with entirely different contexts here.
In 2007, the critics took credit for their condemnation, but this time the posters remain anonymous. Seven students signed their name to the 2007 letter, declaring themselves "Students for Conservativo-Fascism Awareness." It's not clear what, if any, punishment was doled out to the protesters. The 2007 incident was fundamentally different, because without the shield of anonymity, the protestors actually engaged in productive, albeit offensive, speech that could be debated, refuted, and generally engaged with.
Moreover, the 2007 posters were put up in a direct response to a controversial event. This time, there was nothing to be satirical about. Again, based on FIRE's own research, "There is no indication that YAF, or any organization, is hosting another ‘Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week' at the university."
So what are they protesting? What is the point of their satire?
That's the most fundamental difference between the two incidents. In 2007, the posters had a purpose that was targeting a specific event. In 2017, the posters weren't serving any other purpose than to tear down and falsely accuse members of a conservative group.
The 2017 members of YAF are not responsible for what their predecessors did, and a personal attack is both petty and unprofessional. It's not productive speech — it's an attack on the merits of students in a specific group.
Say what you want about the 2007 protest — personally, I think it was petty and could have had a stronger impact if it was more professionally articulated — but it was a different kind of critique than its 2017 copycat. The former I can begrudgingly respect and acknowledge as free speech — the latter is nothing more than cowardly harassment.
Gabriella Munoz is a commentary desk intern with the Washington Examiner and a student at Georgetown University.