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Meet the Speakers of Darwin Week 2017: Kavin Senapathy

Darwin Week this year will be from February 13-16 and UNIFI’s officer team is busy planning away! Each day there will be 3-4 UNI faculty members giving talks and each evening of Darwin Week 2017, there will be a special presentation by someone from outside the UNI community. All talks will occur around 7:00 pm in the University Room in the basement of Maucker Union.

Our first keynote speaker is Kavin Senapathy on Monday evening at 7 pm. Her Darwin Week 2017 presentation is entitled Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt in Your Grocery Cart. 

Our food supply has never been safer, or more varied or abundant as it is in the developed world today. Yet the public fears “toxins” and chemicals in food, and faces an avalanche of labels with every trip to the market. Kavin Senapathy will discuss why people believe what they do about food, why these myths proliferate, and how to decipher the tactics that marketers use.

Kavin Senapathy is an author, writer, and science activist covering health, medicine, biotechnology, agriculture and food. She’s the co-founder and director of international pro-science, pro-biotech movement March Against Myths, and co-author of “The Fear Babe: Shattering Vani Hari’s Glass House,” a book discussing popular food misconceptions and why they proliferate despite evidence against them. As a mom to a 6-year-old and 3-year-old, Senapathy often tackles health and nutrition misinformation targeted at parents. She’s a regular contributor to Forbes, with work frequently appearing in outlets like Slate, Gawker, Grounded Parents and more. She is active on social media, and can be found discussing the latest biotech, food, health and parenting-related news on Twitter @ksenapathy and Facebook at fb.com/ksenapathy.

Introducing the 2016-2017 Officer Team

I am very excited to announce this upcoming year’s officer team. I was very impressed with all of the interviews and cannot wait to see all that these wonderful humans bring to the table. Without further ado, I would like to introduce you all to :

Casey McGregor, Director of Public Relations13020221_10207753594391186_181633237_n

Casey will be in his third year at UNI and is thrilled to be a part of an organization that spreads great values to the community. He is a History major who enjoys all things in life especially friends, food and all things Game of Thrones. In addition to UNIFI he will be the Secretary/Treasurer for UNI STARR next year. He can’t wait to get involved as Director of Public Relations and give back to the organization that accepted him with open arms.

Brooke Wiese, Director of Activities

is just finishing her sophomore year at UNI. She’s double majoring in English and Anthropology with a minor in Creative Writing. Outside of UNIFI, she enjoys writing, drawing, puns, D&D, and staring off into the distant horizon. She loves being involved in UNIFI and is unbelievably excited to take on the position of Director of Activities. It’s going to be an amazing year!

Tanner Filip, Director of Finance

11048733_10206676102973606_3139080686800704127_nTanner is a freshman, studying computer science. He is currently serving in NISG as a senator for the College of Arts, Humanities, and Sciences. He also doesn’t like choosing photos of himself, nor writing bios (not to be confused with BIOS)

Nicole Valentine, Director of Membership

is a first year social work major from Dyersville, Iowa. She is looking forward to joining the officer team and working with all members of UNIFI. Outside of UNIFI, she is the Special Events Coordinator for Feminist Action League. She is so excited to take on the role of Director of Membership and work to make the coming year fantastic!


Cassie Beadle, Graphic Designer

Cassie is very excited to return to UNIFI as the graphic designer for her last year. Cassie is a graphic design major and has been the graphic design coordinator for UNIFI for the last 2 years. She can’t wait to be involved in UNIFI again and get to know the new members and officers.

Aaron Friel, Alumni Coordinator

05a2844d-3529-45fa-9067-51835face061Aaron Friel is a math and computer science major and past president of the UNI Freethinkers and Inquirers. He will be spending his last year building alumni connections and working for the new leadership to celebrate the organization’s tenth birthday! Besides UNIFI, he’s involved in progressive causes and working on software projects for UNI and hopes to launch a startup soon after graduating.

You’ll Never Guess How Spirit Science Has Cured Millions (of Their Livelihood)

The page Spirit Science has over eight million likes on Facebook. Each vacuous post of theirs gets thousands of likes, or shares, or both, and is seen by hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions. Many of their YouTube videos obtain hundreds of thousands of views. And some of their content gets me mad as hell.

You might think, “You’re just jealous.” You’re damn right, I am. The nonsense they peddle that amounts to little more than a new age rebranding of The Secret with covered in a thin veneer of word salad. I am jealous of the attraction that this pseudoscience gets! But what gets me from jealousy to anger is this:


Wowing parents of children with Autism with a series of impressive sounding chemical names and processes, the people promoting this solution claim it’s a miracle cure. The fact that it’s a miracle is in the name: Miracle Mineral Solution. But wait, there’s more!

It cures H1N1, it cures hepatitis, it cures AIDS, and it cures cancer. But most of all, it cures that unsatisfying feeling of an intact digestive tract. It does that because this miracle cure is bleach. Drink enough, and you’ll be cured of any disease. It’s a toxic solution that parents make for their kids that causes them to expel parts of their intestines in their stool. And SpiritScience.net, a site which is expressly disinterested in obtaining answers to questions by real, non-spirit science, will happily encourage you to purchase MMS.

I am jealous of the captivating power of new age, spiritual nonsense. The scientific method, and the slow, plodding success of medical science is not very interesting, but there is a reason we have such an exacting standard in our country for medical claims. Unproven medicines have killed and harmed so many people that the bar had to be set very high, and even then, mistakes still occur. They are corrected, slowly, by a system that is anything but exciting.

There are no miracle cures, and bleach doesn’t cure autism. It’s exciting to believe in chakras and higher planes of existence. It would be a wonderful world to live in if it were true that we were on the precipice of a new phase of human existence, free of physical constraint. While that might seem harmless to believe in, it is supported by a fundamental belief in a conspiracy theory: scientists, experts, teachers, and your professors are lying to you about how the world works. That belief undermines trust and encourages the proliferation of miracle cures. Only if you believe that the doctors are keeping real cures like “Miracle Mineral Solution” from you would ideas like this take hold. That it does is deeply disturbing.

I’d sleep better tonight if I knew Spirit Science was peddling literal snake oil. Instead, they’re asking parents to feed their autistic children bleach.

Support real science, not spirit science. Real science is boring and slow, but it eventually finds the right answers, not quick fixes.

Copyright Infringement in the Modern World

Near the end of the spring semester here at UNI I was accused of uploading Game of Thrones: Season 5 Episode 3 without permission on the university’s network. As one of the sanctions placed on me by the university I was required to write a research paper about “the history and importance of copyright infringement”. I did honest research, albeit with an initial bias, and came to my own conclusions about modern copyright law. I did not write an apology letter. Indeed, I wanted to challenge dogma. Here is what I gave the Office of the Dean of Students:

A culture is not complete without its own forms of literature, film, drama, music, and other creative works. In order to ensure the flourishing of these arts, and hence the flourishing of a large and diverse part of Western society, it is necessary to protect artists and their rights. This is precisely the motivation behind the Copyright Act of 1790, as well as its major revision in 1976. Times have changed, however. With the advent of computers, DVR, camera phones, and the internet, it is has become very easy to copy, reproduce, and obtain media of all kinds from all over the world. With the development of these technologies, and the ease of obtaining and distributing copyrighted media, contemporary intellectual property law was born.

In 1998 the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a document which serves to establish and protect the rights of artists in the case of online copyright infringement, was signed into law by Bill Clinton. The DMCA passed through senate with a unanimous vote. (DMCA, 1998) To combat redistribution and infringement, the DMCA empowers artists by strengthening their copyright on the internet. For example, a young artist trying to make money from selling singles may invoke the DMCA in order to remove a YouTube video featuring the artists’ content without the artists’ consent. In such a case YouTube is responsible for removing the video and informing the user, but YouTube is not liable for damages. This is another facet of the DMCA. Since it is unfair to require internet service providers of such large scale (YouTube has more than one million users who make profit from advertisement revenue) to be held accountable for the actions of their clients and users, the DMCA limits the liability of the providers.

Although the DMCA limits the liability of service providers like YouTube, there is still conflict between content providers and the large video streaming website. In 2007 Viacom filed charges against YouTube for copyright infringement. Viacom claimed that the volume of different users uploading Viacom’s content accrued more than $1 billion in damages. (Helft, 2010) The initial verdict was that YouTube was protected by the DMCA, but in the sequence of appeals there was a ruling that YouTube could be held liable due to YouTube having “general knowledge” that “many people upload copyrighted content.” In the end of the court battle, the DMCA acted as a shield for YouTube rather than a sword for Viacom and no damages were paid. Though it is obvious that YouTube is not interested in committing infringement, their liability was the subject of heated debate – the case took 6 years to settle. When it comes to the case of file sharing with copyrighted media, however, the verdict is clear. Using file sharing services to download or upload files is a violation of copyright law.

Since file sharing software is so commonplace, copyright infringement is happening more now than ever. Those who stand to challenge copyright infringement are, of course, those who feel the effect most of all. The RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) manufacture and deliver 85% of all media in the United States and have sued more than 20,000 individuals for distributing copyrighted media. (Kravets, 2010) Since the DMCA protects internet service providers, the RIAA may only sue individual violators directly. Out of the 20,000 cases that have been opened, only 2,500 have been settled. The RIAA’s litigation campaign has been incredibly unsuccessful and has even been accused of being nothing more than an “intimidation campaign”. Such allegations are easy to believe knowing that the RIAA has also sued the families of dead men; the RIAA gave the family of Larry Scantlebury 60 days of grieving before the attack on his estate in the courtroom. (Bylund, 2006) As indicated by only 2,500 settled cases, this behavior from the RIAA does not go unchecked. The RIAA has been met by the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation), a pro-open culture litigation shield for vulnerable parties, in court many times. (EFF, 2015) With their defeat on the front of individual lawsuits the RIAA has resorted to tracking peer to peer uploads and asking the service provider to dispense its own form of justice to the users, this comes typically in the form of a three strike system.

But do not forget that the original intent of copyright law is to protect artists and their rights. The fans, believe it or not, are actually interested in compensating artists.
The RIAA has spent long hours and many resources on its campaign and they are legally in the right. But do not forget that the original intent of copyright law is to protect artists and their rights. The fans, believe it or not, are actually interested in compensating artists. The staggeringly high amount of illegal downloads might not be very persuasive, but if one considers different mediums then the fact becomes obvious. There is a new form of entertainment present on the internet today called “streaming”. With online videogames, a professional player will share their screen activity with the world through a website for free and anyone can come to the website and watch them play. The interesting thing about this arrangement is that thousands of these professional players make a living from fan donations. The professional players build a connection with their fans and, with support from donations, these professional players spend their days doing what they love – providing content.

Some may argue that if fans want to support music artists then they should just “suck it up” and buy the albums. This argument is flawed because it assumes that the profits of the purchase will benefit the artists. While it is true that some of the profits will go to the artists, the split is nowhere close to fair for the artists involved. According to a report done on music sales artists only make $24 for every $1,000 sold. (Jefferson, 2010) Therefore it is in the artists’ best interest (that people buy albums) in the same way that a starving person would prefer a plate with crumbs rather than a plate with nothing on it at all. A new system, one which protects the artists and the fans, is necessary.

It is not hard to imagine what these alternative support systems might look like. The model might function in the same way that it does for radio stations; they pay a recurring fee to play whatever music they like. It might function in the same way that it does with streaming; artists connect directly to their fans and collect donations. In any case, file sharing is not going away. Despite the fear tactics and lawsuits, file sharing is at an all-time high. It is time to change the rules of the game. Artists and fans deserve a system that will allow culture to flourish.

Works Cited

Bylund, A. (2006, August 12). Retrieved from ArsTechnica:

EFF. (2015, June 3). Retrieved from Electronic Frontier Foundation:

DMCA. (1998). Retrieved from U.S. Copyright Office:

Helft, M. (2010, March 18). Technology. Retrieved from New York Times:

Jefferson, C. (2010, July 6). Culture. Retrieved from The Root:

Kravets, D. (2010, September 21). Security. Retrieved from Wired:

Announcing Your 2015-2016 UNIFI Executives

Dear members, friends, and alumni of the UNI Freethinkers & Inquirers,

With every spring, this student organization undergoes its leadership transition, making way for new leaders. We, speaking not just for myself but for all past presidents, treat this process very seriously, and put significant thought into the candidates for every position, and that although I did not make the cut every time, the end result was better for the group. This seriousness and dedication to leadership distinguishes the Freethinkers & Inquirers among many other student organizations, so it was with enormous pride that I accepted the presidency last year.

As I will be returning for another year at UNI, I will be retaining my position as President of UNIFI. I have learned a lot from my officers this past year, and I look forward to pushing another officer team to succeed and supporting them in implementing their vision for the group. But it is not just my tired old vision that is necessary for leadership, but also new (and frankly, more youthful) energy that is needed, too.

With that in mind, I have asked Natalie Kaufman to be the next Vice President of UNIFI.

Natalie Kaufman
Natalie Kaufman

Natalie joined the organization in her first year at UNI as a member. I recall meeting her at, I believe, her first regular UNIFI event in September of 2013, at Know Your Arguments: Secular Identities. At that first meeting she asked many questions and had already begun to grasp some of the more difficult questions the secular community faces in knowing its identity and what it should mean to be secular, to be a freethinker, and what the responsibilities our community should have.

Although just a member, that year she led her first meeting as she co-hosted a talk on reproductive rights and abortion. That successful event and others naturally followed with her pursuing an officer position and being appointed as Director of Public Relations last year. In that position, she has exceeded my expectations, and has proven herself to be reliable and supremely invested in the success of this group.

I give Natalie my thanks for being a voice of reason at officer meetings, and for excelling in her role as Director of Public Relations. I look forward to working with her over the next year, and especially in selecting the officer team that will succeed this years’ and continue to be a voice for secular values at UNI.

Aaron Friel
President, UNI Freethinkers & Inquirers

P.S.: I would be remiss not to mention that officer applications for the next officer team will be available shortly, with a transition to the new officer team in approximately one month. Please stay tuned for this!

Where Does the Secular Movement Belong in the World of Reproductive Rights?

CN: Mentions of rape and sexual assault.

Recently, someone asked me an interesting question. I came up with a short answer on the spot, but now, after I have had some time to think about it, I think I have more to say. Should the secular movement be involved in the reproductive rights*/sex positivity** movement, and if so, how? Is there a point at which the secular could go too far in supporting reproductive rights? Here’s my short answer: yes and yes. Right from the get go, most secularists are socially and politically progressive, and are in support of reproductive rights and sex positivity without applying the lens of a secularist, but let’s take a look through this lens and see what we figure out.

As a student who has been invested in these two movements since starting college, I often think about the intersections between reproductive rights and secularism. For one, reproductive rights are rights that are obtained and suspended through our government, which are secular institutions. There are also causes supported by many in the repro rights movement that don’t quite line up with secularism. (Not that they work against each other, either.) Why should secularists care about reproductive rights? Because the lawmakers that are working to eliminate rights such as access to birth control and abortion are almost completely religiously motivated.

laurelin blog post

Reproductive rights would not even be up for dispute if it weren’t for religion. Religious teachings about sex outside of marriage, mastubation, homosexuality, trading women as commodities, prostitution, etc. are all behind the traditionally conservative fight against accessible reproductive health care. Some may not even realize that their sex-negative beliefs stem from religion, but that’s where it all starts. Sex-shaming provides all of the motivation for this dispute. It is still important to acknowledge that sex and morality do have some links, even outside of religion. Sex can be both moral and immoral, without consulting the Bible for those standards. For example, cheating or any other form of non-consensual sex is immoral. Does that mean that the only moral sex people can have is that which occurs between a man and a woman, sometime after they are joined in holy matrimony? No; God does not have to consent to anyone’s sex for it to be moral. God shouldn’t have any effect on your sex life unless you want him to. It is okay to tie morality and sex together, but we should think about tying this knot with a secular mind, not with a religious one. If we do make a secular statement about sex and morality, it would look something like this: Sex is moral if it is between consenting parties, provided that all parties are able to give their consent. No one should be sexually violated.

Since we have a secular government, the laws we make about reproductive care should be based on the above statement and not on any ideas pertaining to religion. That, unfortunately is not the case. In the fight for reproductive rights, there are many (ranging from the moderately to the extremely conservative) whose beliefs are derived from the Bible, and the laws they want to enact are based on statements such as the following: People  should not have sex outside of marriage. Women who have sex outside of marriage are whores, and they are ruined. People shouldn’t be having sex unless they want babies. Life begins at conception. (Side note: It’s worth acknowledging that the “life begins at conception” statement is not derived from the bible at all. It is actually just a belief cultivated and maintained by conservative religious communities, including the Catholic Church.)

The secular movement should support some agendas put forth by the reproductive rights movement, namely, those that are specifically religiously motivated. Primarily, the secular movement should actively support access to reproductive health services and products such as birth control, condoms, pelvic exams, etc. (Basically things you can get at a Planned Parenthood or other family planning center.) The conservative motivation for blocking access to abortion and birth control comes from the belief that women who have sex should be married, and that couples who have sex within a marriage should want to get pregnant. Now, to be honest, there aren’t many people out there trying to ban birth control (thankfully). There are, however, tons of people trying to ban some forms of birth control, limit access to all birth control, and ban abortion with few exceptions.

Secularists, who believe that decisions should be made based on evidence, should support access to IUD’s, the Plan B pill (or “morning after pill”). Conservatives call these methods “abortifacients” and believe they cause abortions by preventing a fertilized egg from implanting on the uterine wall, but science says differently. Multiple studies found that, while it’s possible for these methods to block implantation, they actually don’t. There are actual abortifacients, like mifepristone, but those can only be administered by medical professionals, and are used to induce abortions.

Secularists should also support access to birth control. The only arguments against access to birth control are religiously motivated. What’s more, there is substantial evidence to show that access to birth control, especially for young women, reduces abortion and teen pregnancy rates and promotes an overall healthy society. Great things happened in Colorado when they provided free birth control to young women in need.

Here’s where it gets hairy: Some secularists believe that the secular movement should support access to abortion, since most of the arguments against it are religious in nature. There are, however, a handful of secularists who think abortion is immoral, and though their beliefs are not supported by evidence, they are legitimate. (The belief that abortion is moral/immoral cannot be supported by evidence regardless of which side one takes.) Secular arguments against abortion do exist, and they are not all religiously motivated or motivated by sexism or sex-shaming. There seems to be a general consensus against non-believers that abortion should be legal, but I have met atheists who are pro-life, and that doesn’t make them any less atheist. I am in no position to make a statement about whether or not the secular movement as whole should support legal abortion. The debate certainly has ties to secularism, but it isn’t cut and dry.

There are also a few causes that the secular movement should stay away from, because they are secular debates about sexual morality, and not religiously motivated. The most relevant of these are affirmative consent laws. An affirmative consent law essentially states that parties participating in a sex act must give positive, out-loud consent every time an act occurs. Without the affirmative consent, a sex act can be considered rape or sexual assault. There is a lot of debate among all kinds of people about whether or not these laws should exist. Some say that is protects victims, others say that is turns too many people into rapists. Either way, it is not something on which the secular movement as a whole should take a position.

That was an interesting question to unpack. Overall, I think the secular movement should definitely support wide access to all birth control, and most reproductive health care needs. The movement could support access to abortion, but there are legitimate reasons to steer away from that debate, and the  movements should definitely stay neutral in the midst of debates on non-secular reproductive rights issues, like affirmative consent. Now, just because the secular movement should not take a stance, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take a stance, or at least get educated about these issues. Secular or not, reproductive rights are important and affect everyone’s lives. So get informed, make your own opinions, and go argue with other secularists. It’s something worth talking about.

*Reproductive rights include keeping abortion legal, making abortion accessible to the public, opening access to birth control, and allowing women and families if and when to become parents.

**Sex positivity is the mentality that people should feel comfortable and happy with their own sexuality. Sex positivity supports good consent, healthy relationships, healthy sexuality, etc. Sex positivity is closely related to the reproductive rights movement.

Je suis Charlie, or: how to support terrorists and silence journalists

The oft offensive and satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was attacked. The satirists were coming off the high of a wildly successful issue1 that angered Muslim extremists and brought a religious conflict into their home, their headquarters in Paris. There, the assailants issued a lawsuit and demanded the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo cease their shenanigans forthwith.

Perhaps that wasn’t the attack you were thinking of. That was in 2006, after the magazine bravely published in full the cartoons from the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, having caused controvery a year prior on September 30th. Those cartoons depicted the Muslim prophet Muhammed, and made a few people unhappy. Some of those people then made hundreds of other people into mourners. Is it a cartoonist’s job to ensure someone isn’t so inflamed as to murder? In 2005, “Jeg er Jyllands-Posten”.

What of the attack that occurred shortly after publishing an edition criticizing Shariah law with a cover featuring “Muhammed”? That edition mocked Middle Eastern nations’ laws that targeted LGBT* persons, women having sex out of wedlock, and the brutalizing punishments enforced by a number of predominantly Muslim nations. That attack came in 2011 when their building was fire-bombed. I believe no one was injured, except for the pride of someone who couldn’t stand criticism. It was a step up from a lawsuit in violence, and an unfortunate setback for civility.

That still may not be the attack I was supposed to write about. What about when they published a short film criticizing Islam – albeit poorly – and incited hundreds of riots at embassies across the Middle East. That film, the Innocence of Muslims, was never forced on anyone, and was uploaded to YouTube and translated to Arabic by some coy Coptics. The Coptic Christians in Egypt seem to have a perennial one-upmanship with the Muslim Brotherhood, a sort of keeping up with the Ahmedses.

That was not Charlie Hebdo’s work, rather it was Nakoula Basseley Nakoula’s film. Nakoula is not a role model of free speech by any means, he’s been something of a petty criminal much of his life, but he did make a film. That made a few people unhappy. Some of those people then left thousands of others in grieving. Is it a filmmaker’s job to ensure someone isn’t so inflamed as to murder? In 2012, “I am Nakoula”.

There are many other instances of free speech, of a publication riling up extremists, and innocents dying. At the pain of omission, we come to the attacks perpetrated on January 7th of this year. A cartoon criticizing ISIS depicted the extremists beheading Muhammed precipitated the attack. I don’t understand it myself, as I’ve seen their comics and while the line work is quite basic, but I don’t think it’s so bad as to incense one to murder. Ever seeking to prove me wrong, some Muslim extremists were and they proceeded to kill more political cartoonists than all but a few newspapers in the United States employ2.

10899542_1531240417130999_737500267_nIn the wake of this tragedy, I found the most solace in Banksy’s art. I believe strongly that from this tragedy, Muslim extremists will only rally more cartoonists, satirists, and comedians against them. This seems to be the case, as the Washington Post has opted to publish one of their comics, and the New York Times’ editorial board has faced substantial criticism. The Danish cartoons in 2006 did not elicit this much controversy, or such an outpouring of support. If one is so angered by satire as to kill for it, it might be in one’s best interest to stop killing satirists.

Charlie l’as bien cherché3

The news that had me seeing red was the cowardly commentary by self-avowed journalists in the United States. The victim-blaming of Charlie Hebdo crowded my news feeds and it came from every unlikely source I could imagine. From social justice activists to the Pope, many suggested that Charlie Hebdo, all scantily clad and with their blasphemers barely covered by adequate censorship, were asking for it.

The twelve slain victims of the Jan. 7 Charlie Hebdo shooting.
The twelve slain victims of the Jan. 7 Charlie Hebdo shooting.

What’s cropped out of these photos, you see, are their canvas and pens, just hanging out. The maintenance workers and security guards, the columnists, and the editors were of course just encouraging it. One can’t simply go around publishing works “mocking, baiting and needling Muslims”, as Europe editor for the Financial Times says. That isn’t to say they deserved it, as he writes:

This is not in the slightest to condone the murderers, who must be caught and punished, or to suggest that freedom of expression should not extend to satirical portrayals of religion. It is merely to say that some common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo, and Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, which purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims.Tony Barber

This sophomoric attitude seems more befitting a balding and ill-prepared school principal. Barber writes not to suggest anyone should be censored, perish the thought! Rather, it would be good if these publications could just come to adopt a dress code and try a bit harder to cover up their offensive bits. Not censorship, per se; Barber would just rather they not publish things that offend Muslims.

It’s a fashionable enough ideology that the Pope is on board. Charlie Hebdo needs to know that it shan’t bare too much lest it might bear the brunt of more attacks. To borrow Pope Francis’ words, “If my good friend Sarah wears a certain outfit, she can expect sexual assault. It’s normal. It’s normal.”4

Normal things are, as a matter of course, moral. Hence the commandments on Moses’ third tablet and why miscegenation (also known as “different race marriage”) is illegal, Henry Ford was jailed for perverting the natural way of travel, the Wonderbra is contraband, and our nation’s presidents, past and present, are white Protestants; all as God intended. The fifteenth commandment being that if she wears that skirt, well, we all know she asked for it.

The other day I had the misfortune of being late to the papers, and seeing no copies of the New York Times I relegated myself to picking up a USA Today. I read it anyhow, and aside from a typo or two it exceeded my expectations until I read this:


This is a column from DeWayne Wickham, dean of the School of Global Journalism & Communication at Morgan State University. I found the legal argument lacking, his position as dean of a school of journalism confusing, and finally, his support for the heckler’s veto infuriating. I’ve reached out to Wickham’s office with these questions, but as of publication time, have not received a reply.

On the issue of free speech, I’m not aware of any reading of Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire5 that would apply to depicting or criticizing Muhammed in a publication. The court ruled there on the issue of directed statements to a chosen individual. I was unable to obtain a statement from the ACLU at publication time, but if the Westboro Baptist Church won its case in Snyder v. Phelps, I doubt we can consider Charlie Hebdo’s publication to be “fighting words”, but legally it hardly matters: they are French. American courts would likely rule in favor of Charlie Hebdo, but they can’t. This legal argument is tenuous at best.

On the issue of DeWayne Wickham being the dean of a college of journalism, arguing that any critical or irreverent speech is “beyond the limits of the endurable” can only have a chilling effect. What is a student of journalism at Morgan State University to think, or any journalist, cartoonist, et al., if this apparently reputable head of a journalism department has deemed an entire category of critical thought beyond the limits of free speech?

Finally, I am most perturbed by his support for the heckler’s veto:

If Charlie Hebdo’s irreverent portrayal of Mohammed before the Jan. 7 attack wasn’t thought to constitute fighting words, or a clear and present danger, there should be no doubt now that the newspaper’s continued mocking of the Islamic prophet incites violence. And it pushes Charlie Hebdo’s free speech claim beyond the limits of the endurable.

This suggests that if the paper continues its criticism of Islam unabated, they have it coming. If Charlie Hebdo’s speech is beyond the limits of the endurable, then what is an extremist to do? This is as direct a parallel to sexual assault victim blaming as I could have asked for: “When the skirt is so short, it pushes her free speech claim beyond the limits of the endurable.” Wickham at least has the disreputable company of the Pope and a hopefully soon-to-be-former editor of the Financial Times. This suggestion that their writing is beyond the limits of the endurable is a form of heckler’s veto. That anyone, at any time, may threaten violence and this threat overrides free speech.

Suppose I and many others believed sincerely, with as much conviction as the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo attack, that this article was beyond the pale. Suppose, again hypothetically, that this article and perhaps all of Wickham’s columns are so offensive that we, this group, would threaten harm6. Suppose then, that this group had perpetrated violence to make its point clear. Is Wickham’s column beyond the limits of the endurable? Should Wickham stop writing because some group is so inflamed as to murder?

That would be absurd. No group, no matter how violent they are, should wield the power of the heckler’s veto. After all, even Muslim extremists have to choose to pick up and read Charlie Hebdo. Even radical free speech activists have to choose to pick up a copy of USA Today and voluntarily subject themselves to its writing. In daily life, there are only two institutions that can force you to read, watch, or otherwise consume speech: your government and the Coca-Cola Company’s marketing department. For everyone else, it’s a struggle to be heard and the best ideas should win out. Lax restrictions on speech enable that marketplace of ideas. Sometimes those ideas might be offensive, but no one has a right not to be offended.

  1. http://www.lemonde.fr/a-la-une/article/2011/11/03/2006-charlie-hebdo-publie-les-caricatures-de-mahomet_1597782_3208.html (in French) []
  2. That speaks volumes about the deplorable state of crudely drawn criticism of US politics. []
  3. Charlie had it coming []
  4. The original quote: “If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. It’s normal.” []
  5. The 1942 case that established “fighting words” as an exception to free speech []
  6. An interesting question to the reader: how explicit can this example be before it, itself, constitutes a true threat? That said, I have no desire to go to Maryland, let alone limit anyone’s, even Wickham’s, speech by force. []

Yik Yak? Yuck.

The UNI family of students was shocked this past week with the sharing of dozens of hateful and bigoted posts, or Yik Yaks, from the eponymous new media app. Individuals across the university community called for enforcement of the Student Code of Conduct. Acting President of the University, Michael Licari, wrote to remind us that threats to our fellow students are criminal offenses.

However, in the din of this controversy, some have called for the enforcement of the Student Conduct Code on anonymous posters who did not threaten their fellow students. This desire to use force to suppress non-threatening speech is very concerning. To understand why, we have to go back to the height of the Civil Rights Movement and the birth of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in 1964. Pictured above, a student is forcibly removed from the UC Berkeley campus for expressing the radical and dangerous view that political speech other than supporting the Democrats or Republicans should be permitted on campus.

Students at UC Berkeley rally for their right to express "radical" political views on campus.
Students at UC Berkeley rally for their right to express “radical” political views on campus, 1964-1965.

Then in 1964, a Berkeley student organization “SLATE” staged protests, distributed pamphlets and information about the Civil Rights Movement and the Freedom Riders, and engaged in other activism projects. They protested discriminatory practices performed by fraternity and sorority organizations, and they campaigned on campus on a variety of issues in violation of student speech codes. As a movement of the New Left during the height of McCarthyism, and perhaps from concern among administration and faculty of being seen as supportive of the Civil Rights Movement’s activism projects, the student organization was banned from UC Berkeley’s campus.

This was the start of the Free Speech Movement, which sought to ensure the right of free expression to all students at public schools and universities. Students staged sit-ins and protests, and eventually secured changes to policy that should have been protected by the 1st Amendment all along. This right is the most important right we have as students: it empowers us to criticize the administration with impunity, challenge the status quo, and demand change without fear of retribution. The right to do so anonymously, too, ought to be protected. Everyone ought to be able to make an argument in the marketplace of ideas and let it stand or fall on its own merit. The Protestant Reformation and the predominant religious doctrine of most Americans depended on the ability of Europeans to express their ideas anonymously, under fear of being condemned for heresy by the Catholic Church. Even today, students have faced abuse for far less than the hate crimes alleged here.

UC Davis students are sprayed with pepper gas in 2011.
UC Davis students are sprayed with pepper gas after staging a sit-in to protest a 32% tuition hike in 2011.

Free expression and anonymous speech are as important today as they were to the founding of our nation, to the dominant faith of our fellow citizens, and to social movements that have changed our world for the better. In every case, authorities sought to limit speech, and to silence criticism with force, often with the penalty of death. We saw this in Ferguson, and we see it in Syria. In every place on earth, the right to freely assemble and merely express one’s ideas is under constant threat. And in nearly every case, the silencing of free speech has had overwhelming support from the majority of the populace. What the founders learned from this  was that no government should ever again have the right to punish ideas: it is too dangerous, the slope is too slippery. Nevertheless, today, the implementation of freedom of expression remains imperfect

Ferguson protesters faced militarized police and the threat of force for violating an indefinite curfew in 2014.
Ferguson, MO protesters faced militarized police and the threat of force for violating an indefinite curfew in 2014.
I want to be clear to everyone hurt by these words: I would rather stand beside you and not my friends, were my friends to say such things.
Does this right to free expression extend to many the hurtful comments made anonymously today? With a heavy heart I must say yes. My reasons are many, and intimately related to my involvement with the Atheist movement. Without free speech, I know my ideas, too, have been considered hate speech by majorities. In many nations of hundreds of millions of people, denying God is punishable by imprisonment, torture or death. I am fortunate not to face trial for that hate crime. But to many hundreds of millions of people, it is hurtful and incendiary to deny the existence of a God.

That said, the comments made, and the remarks I have heard from my fellow students speaking out about the bigotry they face in person on campus upset me. I want to be clear to everyone hurt by these words: I would rather stand beside you and not my friends, were my friends to say such things. That is how change will come to UNI. We must be willing to call out hate, student to student, and use the power of social stigma to end the bigotry our peers face. Let us not call on authority to enforce our social norms. We must be willing to do so ourselves. Free expression ensures us the right to openly criticize racist and homophobic statements without fear of retribution. We should exercise that right and not seek to use force where words may prevail.

Every person at UNI has the power to do this. Remember that in many ways reason and compassion have already prevailed: the last resort of bigoted students to express themselves without fear of stigma are these anonymous posts. Let’s keep it that way, and ensure that no student faces open bigotry, that no bigot may utter such without facing criticism and shame from their classmates and friends. If you hear hate, call it what it is. Whether you are in your dorm, on the hill, or using social media, when you hear hate speech, call it out.

Brother Jed: A Question of Free Speech

Last Wednesday, if you walked past the Union any time in the afternoon you would have been greeted not by passing friends, but by a giant sign that read “You Deserve Hell”. This beautiful display was accompanied by a couple that some UNIFI alumni might consider old friends: Brother Jed and his wife Sister Cindy. From in front of the Union, you could hear all sorts of condemnations: “Sodomizer”, “whoremongerer”, “gays are perverts.”

For those who are unfamiliar with Brother Jed, he and his wife travel across the United States to preach the “good news” to college students in the form of insults, slurs, chants, songs, props, and stories. Many of the preachers who come to campus are willing to have one-on-one conversations and tend to be level headed. Brother Jed prefers an inflammatory approach, using insults and hate speech as a way of captivating people and angering the masses. Instead of preaching to the choir, Brother Jed insists on preaching to the mob.

While Brother Jed is up there shouting, the crowd shouts back. We end up dehumanizing these people, and more often than not find ourselves returning their insults and prodding them to get ridiculous answers. We think these “crazy people” are funny, and we turn them into objects to make fun of rather than people with controversial opinions. Brother Jed and others like him are still human beings who deserve a degree of respect, no matter how offensive they are in the first place. As the old saying goes, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. Yelling insults back to or poking fun at street preachers accomplishes little – they make a living shouting at people. They believe what they are doing is the right thing, no matter how wrong it seems to the rest of us. In the case of Brother Jed and Sister Cindy, who are relatively unapproachable, one can turn to the people standing around and start a conversation with them instead. While I do not agree with what he preaches or how he preaches it, I still believe this raises a very important question of free speech and opens the door for a dialogue. 

UNIFI attempts to foster an environment that values thoughtful conversation and offers critical examinations of social issues and religion. Without free speech we would not be able to do so. Without free speech, I would argue that UNIFI would not be able to have half the presence that it has on this campus. We often forget the power of freedom of speech and fail to realize we would not be able to say half the things we say if it were not for this freedom.

When we celebrate Blasphemy Rights Day, it is important to remember exactly why it exists: to advocate free speech. Respecting free speech is always important, especially to a group of people who hold controversial views. Instead of turning this situation into a mockery, it is better to take a step back and attempt to start a discussion. 

I am not pardoning Brother Jed and Sister Cindy, nor do I agree with what they say. I am instead raising the point of respect.  This organization exists as a safe space for non-religious people or those coming out of religion who wish to question it. We above all people should recognize the importance of free speech and how every opinion matters. UNIFI President Aaron Friel wrote a blog post earlier this year explaining that we are “not those atheists”. Shouting euphoric insults and tipping our fedoras will not get us or the atheist movement anywhere. Instead of being the people who make fun of Jed and Cindy, UNIFI’s role should be to step up and offer a safe haven for those who disagree with what they say.

The World and Us: Being A Spiritual Atheist

Recently over the summer, I had been thinking a lot about what I believe and what I know. I felt confused, lost, and frankly so frustrated that I couldn’t be content with conformity and the unquestioning nature that everyone from my hometown seemed to have about their Christian beliefs. I began to take long walks just to think, but eventually I found my inner dialogue would begin to mute as time passed by. I became content with silently soaking in and analyzing the beauty of each plant, animal, and cloud that I saw.

I began to wonder if by being an atheist, or at least agnostic, I was taking the wonder and beauty out of my perception of the world, as if by not believing in a supreme being I wasn’t allowed to appreciate nature or the connection that I felt with everything around me. Of course, I later realized that that was absurd, and that being an atheist only makes me understand and see this relativity to my surroundings even greater.

Spirituality, to me, is feeling like a part of the universe, connected to all of life around you. You don’t have to be religious and believe that you and all of life were specifically created by an external entity to feel an overwhelming connection to the universe.

The very atoms in the molecules that compose our bodies are traceable to stars, stars that once combusted to create the elements in which we are all made up of. Because of the death of these stars, everyone and everything that we see is connected not only to each other, but also to the cosmos. To quote the eloquent Neil deGrasse Tyson, “we are in the universe and the universe is in us.” I can’t see a more spiritual connection than knowing that you are made up of what you live in.

We can also see this connection in the history of our own DNA, which shares characteristics with all species on Earth. Humans are just one tiny speck of life in the ever growing and evolving tree of life, which started billions of years ago and now continues into the unknown. It blows my mind that we share common ancestors with everything from butterflies to bananas. Everything on Earth is related to every other thing, and though the thought of this huge tree of life, where humans are not the central and most integral branch, may at times make you feel tiny and unimportant, it can also make you feel big and vast when you realize that you are a part of something so all-encompassing.

I realized two things that summer. One, I really love nature. And two, I don’t think that I will ever find my answers nor know the meaning of life, but I do know that I can feel the trees whispering when it’s windy, and when the stars engulf the sky I feel big and small at the same time, and I know that everything and everyone is connected to everything and everyone, and that’s the most beautiful truth that I know.