Thursday, November 01, 2007

On Chief Illiniwek

I'm a firm advocate for free expression. I believe there should be as few limits on free expression as possible, and that university campuses particularly must be committed to free expression.

However, I am also convinced by Charles R. Lawrence III's argument in "The Debates Over Placing Limits on Racist Speech Must Not Ignore the Damage It Does to Its Victims" (pdf). Lawrence argues that because a college must commit itself to allowing equal educational opportunities to all students--including minority students--reasonable restrictions on bigoted speech may be necessary to allow a safe and open educational environment. Essentially, a university's commitment to equal rights must trump its commitment to free speech.

Our nation's ideals of "liberty" and "equality" are, by their very nature, occasionally in conflict. There's always a delicate balance when it comes to liberty and equality, and I think Lawrence is right: reasonable limits on bigoted speech can still allow for free expression (even bigoted expression, but in a limited capacity), while promoting equality for all students.

Recently, the University of Illinois allowed previously banned images of Chief Illiniwek in its homecoming parade on campus; as the university stated, "The university values free speech and free expression, and considers homecoming floats, decorations, costumes and related signage all representations of such personal expression. Therefore, Chancellor Herman has directed the Homecoming Committee to strike the existing policy from the homecoming float guidelines” (Susan Saulny, New York Times).

Dave Zirin, rightly critical of the racist iconography of Chief Illiniwek, dismisses the free expression argument: "Yes, our forefathers fought and died to protect the right to display caricatures of the conquered at public institutions of higher learning." There's irony in this statement, of course: most of "our forefathers" hated Native Americans and probably would defend mockery of them. But there's a larger point: it doesn't matter what the particulars of expression or ideas "our forefathers fought and died to protect." It doesn't matter what particular forms of expression "our forefathers" would approve or disapprove of (I suspect many of them would disapprove of a whole lot of 21st century expression). The point is they "fought and died"--and created a Constitution--to protect our rights to express pretty much whatever we want. We don't have to consider whether they would like it or not.

The free speech argument is not so easily dismissed, but it is not so simply triumphant in this case, either. The University of Illinois' "Student Code: Article I: Student Rights and Responsibilities" (pdf) allows for free expression on campus (1-103 (a)), but that in such expression students "speak only for themselves," not the academic community as a whole (1-106 (b) (1)). What the University must determine to its own standards is whether expression in a parade on campus constitutes the students' free expression (which it cannot really stop), or whether the parade itself is a University-sanctioned event, and thus in some way approved by the University. If it is the former, then students can freely present images of Chief Illiniwek (however much you or I may disapprove of such expression); if it is the latter, then the University could prevent such images, as it does not itself wish to promote such expression.

Zirin does come back to the free expression issue, quoting a letter from Antonia Darder comparing Illiniwek to other forms offensive speech. It's an effective comparison, and should give us pause--but it still may not diminish the free expression argument.

Ideally, a college community responds on its own that it will not accept racist expression. A few years ago, somebody graffitied a racist slur in the college community I've been a part of for nine years. The campus community responded with a rally to make clear that we would not accept racism, and that we would continue to strive to be an open and tolerant college. Students didn't need legislation to resist bigotry; they resisted organically because it was and is right. But as Saulny and Zirin state, at Illinois many students attended the parade supporting the image of Chief Illiniwek, and there were no protesters at the parade. Sometimes students don't organically rise up to fight against racism. And so I do accept that there are times that a university may impose limits on bigoted expression.

So here's the line. I find Native American "mascots" like Chief Illiniwek distasteful, offensive, and disrespectful. But I also recognize individuals' right to expression that I find distasteful, offensive, and disrespectful. I still believe universities and franchises should abolish the use of racist iconography--I just also recognize the rights of individuals to their own expressions of racist iconography. If the homecoming parade was student-driven, then the individual students in and at the parade have their individual rights to free expression--including expressions of the offensive image of Chief Illiniwek. If the homecoming parade is University-driven, then the University should not allow images of Chief Illiniwek in the parade, as it should not itself sanction the offensive image of Chief Illiniwek.

According to Saulny, "Robin Kaler, the university’s associate chancellor for public affairs, said the nature of the event, a public parade, overrode concerns about the university’s sponsorship. 'We wouldn’t ban a member of the campus community from wearing chief paraphernalia to class or work,' she said. 'We’re not going to ban them from doing that in the parade either.'" Apparently, the University has seen this line between university support and student freedom, and sees the parade in terms of student freedom.

Read Susan Saulny's reporting on the story. Read Dave Zirin's essay on the story. Read Charles Lawrence's essay on racist speech on campuses. There are important ideas here.


  1. I can see your point in this article.But we as a nation just Celebrated a holiday that makes spoof of everything and anything left to the imagination.And to beat the hell out of the band we reward such behavior with candy at our doors.
    This is done with laughter in mind and no taboos except naked bodies and drive attendants in mind.
    The intent of the College students is not one with malice.Not one of reverence either but of percieved endowment of visage and strength.Who percives the Slight and why.An image should hurt no one unless that image is used in an demeaning manner.Did indians use tomahawks to scalp people, yes at one time they did.Thats a fact.
    There comes a time for all Races to drop the race card so that healing can begin.So that laughter can trickle in as a balm to those wounds.
    We are so unique as one self yet gather us in a group and what 1 thought was funny a crowd doesnt.
    Are we a melting pot of all nations and races.Or are we a stew pot boiling over with no seasonings added.
    Its time we as a people heal together,let old wounds scar and fade.Let old hatreds die,old slurs be forgotten.
    Raise our Children not in the old hatreds but of a compassion of all we come across.
    For this Nation to survive all must be forgotten and forgiven. If we was a Nation together 9/11 would never have happened.But because we are a Nation divided they used and calculated how we would react.
    Thats sad peeps.

  2. Anonymous9:02 AM


    You probably won't be suprised to hear this, but the only people who use the "race card" in sentences like "drop the race card" are mostly those from the dominant race. Essentially it means that we as the dominant race that subjugated and hurt other people of races want them to all of the sudden see the world in a colorblind state, even though for the most part we as a dominant race have not even begun to see race in a colorblind manner.

    You might yourself, but if you look nationally racism is still very much at play. Even Minnesota is full of it, but just in different ways that it may be in the south.

    The use of Halloween to back up your argument doesn't quite work. Halloween is a holiday that is steeped in an old pagan holiday that centered around people dressing up like the dead so that those dead spirits wouldn't be able to tell the living from the dead. It has from there progressed into the commercial candy giving adventure it is today.

    Finally, you say "For this Nation to survive all must be forgotten and forgiven. If we was a Nation together 9/11 would never have happened.But because we are a Nation divided they used and calculated how we would react."

    Forgetting does not bring healing, confronting the reality and working through it does and in my opinion PV has attempted to bring more healing by showing why such behavior does not help the "healing" process. The 9/11 argument is 100% bogus and using that event as an example of why everyone should forget "race" as an issue is very questionable. 9/11 occured because those labeled "terrorists" wanted to attack those they felt are wronging their way of life. Terrorists and their attacks are all over the globe and I am pretty sure they don't calculate their attacks on whether a nation is divided and figuring out how they would attack. Terrorists use "terror" through violent attacks to get their message across. But perhaps to use some of your logic we should "just forget" 9/11 so that we can let "old wounds heal" and we as a "world" can begin healing.

  3. Eveyone has a Point of View the things I listed was just instances that happen.I could prolly spend the next 6 months listing instances of Racism.So on Halloween its ok to dress as an Indian Chief but not on other days.
    You cant have it both ways and decry one is Racist and one is not because its of Pagan origin.
    9/11 is just but an example not a text book arguement.If we had been more aware had more unity it might have been avoided.
    The Idea is not to have a Dominant Race that smacks of Hitlerism.
    To tell the truth I am tired of hearing what happened a 100 years ago.I wasnt there and had no part in it.
    Racism will always be around because people have to have someone to feel better then.Even among those who cry Racism have their own hatreds and bias.