Speaking Out Against Censorship: A Personal Account at SUNY Potsdam *ADDITIONAL ACCOUNTS BELOW*

I’m going to be very clear right from the start– this is not some fluff piece. This is a direct message to every writer who wishes to remain free to speak their mind. This is a direct condemnation of the State University at Potsdam, the compliant educators, and my peers who allowed this censorship to occur. I am not going to name a single name in this article, however. The reason is this– I don’t wish to even consider the existences of these individuals as valid at this point. In a time where they could have fought for their fellow academic, therefore strengthening their own position and keeping academia free for all ideas from all peoples, they sat idly by and did nothing– or pushed the grinding gears of the censorship machine into motion themselves, their hand on the proverbial moral lever. However this switch does not condemn one group to certain death while preserving the life of another– this lever derails the train of censorship, sending it spiraling into all parties, across all lines, leaving only ruin in it’s wake.

I attended the State University of New York at Potsdam from the Fall of 2015 to the Winter of 2017, earning my Bachelor of Arts in ‘Literature and Writing’. I want to be, again, very clear that I do not regret my time spent at SUNY Potsdam– I made many good friends, learned many new and interesting ideas, and learned to engage with Literature and my own abilities (and inabilities) like I never had before. I had many professors who have influenced me positively in ways that I am confident I don’t fully appreciate yet. I am not bitter at a failing system– this is not coming from a place of anger. This is a genuine warning. Look at what is happening in Saudi-Arabia and the assassination of Journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It’s all a slow burn until the world is ablaze and everyone dies in the smoke.

On October 22nd of 2016, Potsdam’s campus was up in arms over a series of Snapchat videos featuring two freshman girls with charcoal beauty masks on, singing and dancing along with the song “Juju on That Beat”. To some on campus the video seemed racially insensitive, or outright racist– two girls dancing around in blackface, mocking Black Culture. Others saw the videos as two freshman girls with charcoal beauty masks on, singing and dancing along with the song “Juju on That Beat”. The exact motivation is not apparent, as one of the videos featured the caption “you’re ruining culture.” which could mean a multitude of things to a multitude of people. The Administration, before any sort of official Police or State investigation into this potential Hate Crime, sent out a mass e-mail condemning (not by name) the students involved in the incident by implying that this was, indeed, a Hate Crime. Unfortunately I do not have access to my student email for unknown reasons– one of my fellow Potsdam Alumni may have the gumption to actually post them (*edit: take note of the post-script)

Being a staff writer on the campus’ only student-run newspaper I believed it to be my journalistic duty to condemn the action of the school as a Witch Hunt (as played-out as that sounds), as a proper Police investigation had not yet been launched and due process had not been achieved. I was taught that journalists were to be watchdogs, whistle-blowers, the vigilant eyes on rooftops who keep the world safe from it’s own corruption. Here is photographic evidence that what follows is the unchanged article that I submitted for editing shortly after writing.

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Date Modified: 10.24.2016 @ 9:41pm

Witch Hunt- Hurting the Cause

This past Sunday (10/23) we were subjected to the unthinkable on campus- a small group of students in a residence hall that appeared to be wearing “black-face” make-up. “Black-face” make-up has been a symbol of racism and inequality in America since the minstrel shows of the earth 19th century in which white actors would paint their faces black to emulate African-American skin tones, usually for comedic effect. Every student and faculty received an e-mail from the desk of President Esterberg (PhD) detailing the happening. This is clearly an inexcusable and direct attack on the African-American community here at Potsdam.

However on Monday (10/24) we were all sent a follow-up e-mail that denounced the previous claims of students wearing “black-face” based on an investigation by SUNY Potsdam officials. Here is an excerpt from the email explaining what the videos content actually was.

“Three of our students filmed themselves dancing to music while wearing charcoal facial beauty masks in one of our residence halls on Friday night. Their posts on social media were later circulated on other platforms. Without context, many people misinterpreted the students’ actions as being a deliberate and biased act of donning blackface.”

This obviously puts egg on the face of the reporters of the initial incident, but this is a much more severe issue than it seems on it’s surface. Sure, you could contend that it was a simple misunderstanding by the SUNY Potsdam Officials before the investigation but that would only be ignoring the underlying problem here- everyone is so eager to “serve justice” that nobody waits until all of the evidence is accounted for to make a fair decision.

There is so much of a racially-motivated action witch hunt right now that the public has become entirely too ready to jump on any issue to make them seem like crusaders for what is good and what is right. But you cannot bypass the need for evidence in any potential crime case, plain and simple.

These students, while nothing official has been stated, now have to live with the label “racist”, even if the event was not a racially-motivated event. This in itself damages the cause that the administration and public at large are truly fighting for. Racist actions and racially-motivated crime of any sort is a deplorable act, however the cause is being damaged when officials and organizations are so gung-ho about labeling every single act as racially-motivated.

We, as a community, need to stop performing these bizarre and, frankly, unconstitutional witch-hunts for racism in acts that are not racially-motivated in intent or execution because all it does is hurt people who really are victims of racism.

I don’t know many people who would look at that and find it so radical that they could not possibly even be personally associated with the opinion in any capacity. It sounds ridiculous– distancing yourself from an opinion that is generally centrist in it’s logic and agrees that Racism is real. However, that is precisely what the authority at The Racquette Newspaper did– they reduced my normal Staff Writer contributor title, removed my headline completely, and sequestered me as the second in-line letter to the editor. The first in line? The Head of the “Diversity and Inclusion Action Collation” at SUNY Potsdam. Here is the paper in which this was printed.

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You may be thinking “But they printed it! That means they still care.” While I appreciate you giving the benefit of the doubt to my peers, I need to provide you with important context in what goes into a Newspaper, or any work that is clearly loved. The team that I worked with on The Racquette were generally very pleasant, motivated people who claimed to have a love of journalism and the freedom to express one’s ideas. We worked incredibly hard, and every single article, photograph, advertisement– every single designed aspect of the formatting– was done with care and attention, giving each piece it’s logical and most effective positioning possible to maximize the potential of the paper.

A contributing Staff Writer, who everyone knows is consistent and often picks up slack voluntarily in order to see the paper succeed, has their title torn from them and then maliciously thrown into the “Letters to the Editor” section, with only their name for attribution, which has been fully personally detached from the paper itself.

Imagine this scenario; An angry reader calls the newsroom to complain about my piece, but The Racquette can immediately deflect by saying “well, those are letters to the editors and aren’t representative of the views of-” You get the idea. But, following that same logic, one could continue and say “-the views of The Racquette, or SUNY Potsdam, or the State of New York– however we do support free speech and free expression and that is why we’ve decided to print this Letter to the Editor.” which is clearly untrue, as my superiors stripped any legitimacy of title I may have had in order to push a narrative, wholly against the value and virtue of a free-speaking people and nation.

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Several Front-page contributions– from left to right: Interview with a Local Business Owner (Photo of Me), Informative Piece on 3D Printing Space in the Library, Special on Haunted Campus

At the time I was told it was because my superiors “wanted to protect me” from any kind of backlash. I was nearly physically sick when I heard that– they recognized that my article was not only against the narrative the school, but that those who agreed with the school’s position are so mentally unhinged that they would physically attack a person who disagreed with them. And make no mistake– the views of the President and Dean are enforced by the administrators of the schools. The Dean and the President work in tandem to oversee the school, therefore making their work and communication with students representative of the school and it’s values.

De-legitimizing my article under the guise of my own protection is not only manipulative and disingenuous, but also wholly against what I believe in and not what I wanted to happen. I wanted the opportunity for people to react. I wanted the opportunity for people to look at an opinion in a recognized college newspaper and something that didn’t reflect their own views. I wanted the opportunity for someone to find me in a dark alley and beat me within an inch of my life, or beat me dead, spitting on me as they leave. I wanted that opportunity so I could keep fighting the good fight, fighting against people like that, like SUNY Potsdam, who would rather their opponents die than live a happy life in a free society.

But before you think that this is just me screaming into the void; a lunatic who hates progressive thought and values, here is Jay Petrequin, the Editor in Chief at The Racquette during my time on the staff, giving his side for the first time:

I ran the Racquette during the fall 2016 – spring 2017 school year. To be frank, I never really felt fully prepared. The school newspaper was never exactly heavily trafficked, and so I knew from the start that there would be a long list of challenges coming my way. In the end, in that year we went through issues ranging from low staff numbers to instances of racial tension on campus. Suffice to say, there were times at The Racquette when I really needed guidance.
One such time was when Brendan’s aforementioned article came our way. I was nervous to publish it for reasons related to its content, but should not have been. It wasn’t anything dangerous to anyone. It was not a matter of verifiable truth vs. fabrication, or plagiarism, or anything else that would be a legitimate reason to reconsider its merit as part of the newspaper. It was just an article that made a very clear and well-reasoned argument on a very sensitive topic; sensitive enough so that I sought advice from faculty. You’ve already read what the advice I was given led to. The content wasn’t changed in any way, but its significance was lowered from what it had planned to be due to the sensitivity of the subject.
Brendan correctly references being told that the decision had been made in order to “protect” him from negative backlash. That was a lie. The decision was made in order to protect The Racquette from the negative opinions and voices that inevitably follow any publication which sponsors an argument deemed contrary to the general consensus. I made the call, personally, in order to protect the public image of the newspaper, because I was too afraid to lose it.
That was not a good reason.
To make it clear, I was never forced or tricked into making the call that I made. I was advised, yes, but at the end of the day, the decision was still mine and mine alone, and not that of school staff nor of my hardworking peers at The Racquette, all of whom I consider dear friends to this day. My part in this piece is not to join in condemnation so much as it is to pass advice to anyone reading this who may one day find themselves in something of a similar situation, and it comes from me as someone who has now been employed in the press for long enough to understand the difference between journalistic integrity and the endless, shifting sea of public opinion. Should you find yourself in a position of power in a publication, as I was, and are tasked with publishing something against the grain, something that challenges you and you know may challenge others, stay steadfast. It doesn’t matter if you have just barely enough editors to make a full paper each week; it doesn’t matter if readership numbers are low, or if people mock the thing you’re making; it doesn’t matter how much you respect the people giving you advice from the sidelines. Publish quality writing without fear of backlash. Support the people who are willing to lay down their time and efforts for your sake and the sake of what it is you claim to stand for.
The influence of journalism has never been pushed forth by fear of retribution.
-Jay Petrequin, Copy editor at The Post-Star, former Editor-in-Chief of The Racquette

If you see The Racquette ever, EVER post or put into print about how they are inclusive and care about everybody’s views, you should ask them what constitutes “everybody” and link them here, because clearly we have different definitions.

Brendan C. Bush, ex-Staff Writer at the Racquette, co-creator and contributor at Heck Media

UPDATES and MORE INFORMATION

The response from those who read the article are absolutely astounding. It truly, unironically moves me to tears. We’ve had a recent alum come forward (who wishes to stay anonymous) with their own account and opinion of the aforementioned events that took place in October of 2016 on SUNY Potsdam’s campus. Here is a screenshot of their account, in their own words.

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If you have a personal account that has gone unheard, now is the time to let it be heard. Strike while the iron is hot, don’t allow your freedom of speech to be suppressed. Email us, message us on social media, post a video on twitter and tag us in it. I will do my best to make sure you are all heard. @HeckMedia on everything, heckmedia@gmail.com
12:49pm, Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018- edit by Brendan C. Bush

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