Freedom of speech becomes a casualty in US
This summer, the Chinese living in New York City had much to complain about. Unhappy, they took to frequent protests in which a couple of dozen Chinese participated. There were also large demonstrations attended by hundreds every few weeks.
What outraged this community were two plans the city unveiled in succession. In early June, the mayor announced a reform of the admissions policy for specialized high schools, the best institutions that take in students based only on their scores in an entrance exam. A majority of students at these schools are Asian. Black and Hispanic students, although comprising nearly 70 percent of young people in the city, make up only 10 percent of students at these schools.
In order to diversify the intake, the mayor scrapped the exam and came up with a plan to offer admissions to the top performing students of every middle school. While the plan, subject to approval by the legislative bodies of New York state, would certainly bring in more Black and Hispanic students as they are the majority in some middle schools, Chinese and Korean students who are good at taking test would lose many places they were just about guaranteed through their test results.
Then in August, the city announced it’s going to build a new jail near Manhattan’s Chinatown as part of its plan to dismantle the notorious prison on Rikers Island and place the detainees in a neighborhood-based humane environment, which, the city believes, helps reduce recidivism. Four of the five boroughs of the city will share the detainees equally. While three boroughs will only have their existing detention facilities expanded, Manhattan will have a new jail built a few blocks from an existing detention center in Chinatown.
The Chinese community is outraged as much about the way the decisions were made as it is about the plans themselves. In both cases, ChineseAmericans would be largely affected but no one offered them an opportunity to speak before the decisions were made. They were completely caught off guard.
Things like these may happen frequently elsewhere and are accepted as part of regular life. But most immigrants came to the US with a firm faith in democracy and freedom of speech. They are often bewildered when reality falls well short of the ideals and when the authorities make arbitrary decisions.
The New York City government may only be neglecting the voices of Chinese immigrants rather than deliberately trying to muffle them. But immigrants in Chinatown don’t have to look far to learn some hard lessons about freedom of speech in the US.
Earlier this month, the New Yorker magazine editor David Remnick was sucked into a controversy by first sending and then withdrawing an invitation to Steve Bannon, former head of conservative media group Breitbart News and former chief strategist of President Trump, for an appearance at the prestigious annual New Yorker Festival in October. Remnick changed his mind when many prestigious guest speakers threatened to withdraw from the festival if they had to share the stage with Bannon.
There have been many similar incidents. In 2007, when Columbia University’s President Lee Bollinger invited then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak on campus, he faced criticism. But he didn’t budge. Scheduled public speeches of far-right commentators and activists such as Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter have also been canceled for “safety reasons.” And social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook recently shut down the accounts of right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
Then, there is the op-ed piece written by “a senior official in the Trump administration” that The New York Times published anonymously. The piece depicted chaos in Trump’s White House from a first person perspective and revealed that many White House senior officials, including the author, have been part of the “resistance” against Trump’s damaging instincts.
The Times said the author’s name was not revealed to save his or her job. Nevertheless, the president has called on the Department of Justice to investigate who wrote the piece and highranking public officials have been vying to issue denials as if they were casting for Murder on the Orient Express, White House edition.
The true meaning of freedom of speech and its limits are up for debate all the time. And the cases above may offer a different perspective. But together, they can teach us at least one thing— even in a country that has freedom of speech in its DNA, it often takes a brutal fight to retain it.
Back to Chinatown, after a few protests, the city finally hosted meetings with community members. It remains to be seen how much difference these meetings can make in changing announced decisions.
The author is a New York-based journalist. rong_xiaoqing@ hotmail.com