March 15, 2018

LETTER TO THE EDITOR | Free Expression Disrupted

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To The Editor:

We, the undersigned, are a group of community members concerned about preserving the freedom of expression at Cornell, namely the dangerous response to Mark Colbran’s collection at the CFC 2018 Fashion Show. Some of us know Mark personally, others do not. Some of us enjoy, or agree with, his collection, others do not. However, we all find alarming the policing of speech at Cornell, either by university affiliates or by independent groups such as The Cornell Daily Sun, through silencing, misinformation and false equivocation.

The article in the March 12, 2018 edition of The Sun written by Meredith Liu and Paris Ghazi under the banner “Fashion Show Disrupted,” relating to events at the CFC 2018 Fashion Show, contains many factually incorrect statements and dangerously equates the peaceful expression of dissent with targeted harassment. The following discussion will not address all of these errors, nor the biased nature of the piece, but will address the most egregious errors and policing of dissent.

The authors of the article, and The Cornell Daily Sun, owe Mark Colbran an apology. They also ought to reflect on their role in protecting the freedom of expression as journalists and students.

Mark Colbran’s design collection did not include an elephant tusk, but it did include a large wooden club that he personally carved for his collection. Nor did he flail a “banner.” The writers’ characterization of that item completely missed the point: which is that it was a cloak that Mark, after displaying, attempted to wrap around himself as he walked off stage. One side expressed his rejection of hate and his dissent of institutional negativity. The other side, covered in a field made up of the word “LOVE” and “FSAD BOYZ 4 EVER,” expressed his embrace of positivity and the creative community. The latter message was meant to be the final message as he walked off stage. A message that was silenced by the aggressive and uninvited interference of Jessa Chargois.

Mark did not approach Jessa, but she did attempt to aggressively silence the final moments of his exhibition. Jessa did not try to “wriggle” the cloak from Mark, as the reporters wrote apparently seeking to minimize the violence of her intervention. She aggressively grabbed the cloak and vigorously wrestled it from him. Mark at no time “put his hands on [Jessa],” as The Sun reported. A review of the immediately available official CFC video coverage shows clearly that he only held on to his cloak and pulled back on it in an effort to retain possession of his property. When it was clear any further action to retain his property would escalate the situation, he let go of the cloak and peacefully walked off stage. Her accusation that he put his hands on her is untrue and, if she was correctly quoted, defamatory. Jessa’s unwarranted action on stage to silence freedom of expression and creative liberty at Cornell causes all of us distress.

Moreover, the article suggests no members of the audience expressed approval for Mark’s collection, instead responding with “whispers” and “gasps.” These statements are essentializing and revisionist. Although people responded disparately and in their own way, cheering for his creative expression occurred throughout the crowd: both in reserved seating for those who attended to support him personally, and in general seating for those who did not.

Mark Colbran’s collection was not targeted harassment, and the false equivalence of peaceful dissent and harassment is unacceptable. The headline characterization of the message on the cloak as “obscene” is conclusory and incorrect. The use of the language on the cloak was intended to be, and was clearly, an emphatic expression of his dissent. It was not in any way sexual. Additionally, there was at no time any “targeted harassment” of any individual or any group of people by Mark or anybody else, as is suggested in the article. Further, Mark at no time suggested by his actions that his collection or expressions represented the view of anyone other than himself. The suggestion that any of the designers who presented their collections on Saturday night were seeking to “represent the opinion of everyone involved” fundamentally misconceives the nature of creative work, and the relationship between designers and those who assist them in executing their creative vision. The work of a designer is purely a matter of individual expression.

There was also some controversy surrounding David Wild’s collection. Although Mark and David are co-founders of the FSAD BOYZ brand, both Mark and David presented their separate, disparate, and individual expressions of fashion through their own creative work. They did not act in concert or speak collectively, nor did they purport to speak for anyone other than themselves as individuals.

However, what troubles us most is that both Mark and David were not allowed to walk back onto the stage at the end of the show. In fact, before the finale, both were asked to leave the building, contrary to Jessa’s quoted statement that David “was not asked to leave.” Mark was not “escorted out by the police” as Jessa is quoted as having said. Mark was asked by the coordinators of the show to leave the building and he immediately and politely left. Although two police officers were in attendance when the request was made, once again, the implication by Jessa that Mark was escorted out under duress is misleading and defamatory. Mark and David left the building alone.

It is unfortunate that the overreaction of Jessa and her colleagues not only unnecessarily soured the event, and deprived Mark and David of the opportunity to join their fellow designers onstage at the end of the show to celebrate four years of hard work, but also deprived their assistants of the opportunity to join them on stage in celebration. Additionally, Mark’s models, who were in no part involved in his interaction with Jessa, were barred from watching the show they personally contributed to.

It is also very unfortunate that the authors, in an apparent rush to publish, chose to sensationalize the coverage of Mark’s actions and cast his peaceful artistic expression in a negative light, rather than first determining the underlying story and focusing on the facts. His collection aside, it is a rare sight to see a group of models with diverse lived experiences, body sizes, body types, gender expressions, sexual orientations, races and ethnicities participate together on stage at a fashion show.

Regardless of if someone personally enjoyed, or agreed with, Mark’s collection, we believe they should be troubled by the discussion around it if they believe in a society with freedom of expression. We are saddened that The Sun chose to publish a piece rife with misinformation that falsely equivalates peaceful artistic expression with targeted harassment or obscenity, instead of choosing to contemplate, corroborate and fact check their journalism prior to publication.

It is notable that the more measured article covering the show in the Arts and Entertainment section of the same edition failed to mention Mark’s collection at all. One might speculate as to the motives behind this omission. Perhaps it is simply that so much journalistic space and opportunity had already been squandered.

Richard Wang ’17
production assistant and model, “Solastalgia” by Mark Colbran

Jason Jeong ’19
Sun opinion columnist

Varun Devatha ’19
executive vice president, Student Assembly

Dale Barbaria ’19
vice president of internal operations, Student Assembly

Salma Shitia ’18

Charlie Liao ‘18

Bjorn Bjornsson ‘18
model, “Solastalgia” by Mark Colbran

Kristin Zak ‘18
model, “Who Are We?” by David Wild

Adam Shelepak ‘17