Free­dom of speech be­comes a ca­su­alty in US

Global Times - - Viewpoint - RONG XIAOQING

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@ hot­

Il­lus­tra­tion: Liu Rui/GT

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