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With Rights Come Tough Decisions

A 'no' vote would have gone beyond keeping former Klan leader David Duke off CSUN's debate platform.

September 15, 1996|VLADIMIR CERNA | Vladimir Cerna is student body president at Cal State Northridge and as such serves as president of the student senate. He cast the tie-breaking vote when the senate deadlocked 11-11 on Sept. 3 over whether to bring David Duke to CSUN to debate affirmative action

I had thought about how I would vote if I were a student senator facing the decision of whether to bring David Duke to Cal State Northridge to debate affirmative action. I knew that student presidents only vote to make or break a tie. I never anticipated that the CSUN senate was going to be deadlocked on an 11-11 vote, but I did think through how I would vote if the need arose.

I knew that many people were going to be disappointed and that some people were going to be proud of my decision. I knew that the image of the university was going to be affected. But I also knew that to vote "no" on this issue would go beyond saying no to David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader. It would touch on many areas that I philosophically cannot disavow.

I remember how in my native El Salvador my father and uncle were murdered because they spoke against the atrocities that the government was committing. I remember how careful they had to be about what they said, and how they had to meet in clandestine locations, so as not to be detected by the military men.

I grew up with the impression that it just wasn't safe to say what you really believed in. I always thought that there were some kind of thought police who could take you away if you had a critical view of the government, and in the case of my family and many others, it was actually true.

I came to the United States in 1986, and I remember very vividly a TV show and how a comedian was making fun of then-President George Bush for his views on social issues. I was only 13 and still thought that this kind of criticism surely must not be allowed. I could not grasp the concept that the most powerful man in the world was being reduced to jokes and laughter by the audience. I laughed with the audience, but then fear struck. I feared that if someone saw me laughing, I was going to be taken away, just like they took away my father and uncle.

Eventually, I learned that this comedian was exercising a constitutional right, the right of free speech. It seemed that every rap song I heard during the late '80s had a curse word or "bad word," as my mother taught me to call them. It seemed that everyone was exercising this right. I began to admire this newfound principle. I admired it so much that I began to live it. As I became more aware of social issues and more upset about certain government policies, I, too, began to criticize people and policies. I had come to live with free speech and use it as my own right.

So when at CSUN I was given the opportunity to again voice my belief in this beautiful concept, I unequivocally stood up to the challenge and voted "yes." Yes, I believe in free speech, and yes, I will defend it, even if it is to defend David Duke's right to speak.

It's amazing how people are quick to defend freedom of speech when the message is one they agree with. Freedom of speech is about protecting the right to speak of those with whom we disagree. A friend of mine told me, "It's very easy to make an easy decision, but it's very difficult to make a difficult decision." That's what happened in the student senate; I had to make a very difficult decision, and now I have to welcome all the consequences coming from it.

A university is supposed to be the playground of ideas. From the moment we come onto campus, our beliefs are being questioned, and I, for one, believe that education takes place outside the classroom as well as inside.

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