Student Reports on Free Speech Conference

conferenceIn early April, I participated in a “Free Speech on Campus” conference in Washington, D.C., hosted by the Newseum Institute and co-sponsored by the Knight Foundation. There, 41 students from across the country exchanged thoughts about the importance of protecting free expression on college campuses while also dealing positively with the very real issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, and culture and bias.

According to a recently released Gallup survey, most students (78%) say colleges should expose students to all types of speech and viewpoints, but a significant minority (22%) say colleges should prohibit biased or offensive speech in the furtherance of a positive learning environment.

What speech, if any, rises to the level of violence sparked a debate at the conference and provided insight about why some students might be willing to support speech restrictions. Some students argued that, depending on the context, racial slurs and the incorrect use of gender pronouns amounted to a violent attack while others worried about the implications of college administrators stepping in to decide what speech is and is not acceptable.

Fanta Aw, assistant vice president for campus life at American University and a sociologist by training, expressed concerns about students’ lack of understanding when it comes to free speech. She said, “Students often say ‘I’m feeling unsafe’ but, in fact, what they mean is, I’m feeling uncomfortable.” Aw would like colleges to help students deconstruct such terms and to work harder to create an environment where students value and learn from difficult conversations.

With the rise of student protests on campuses, colleges are being forced to consider how they have gotten to this point and what should be done. Jennifer Grygiel, social media specialist at Syracuse University’s school of public communications, reminded students that although social media platforms have fundamentally changed how students advocate for their causes, “we need to have conversations in real life” to make social progress.

That’s why I feel fortunate to have been a part of the conference at Newseum. There, I had an opportunity to voice my opinions and listen to the opinions of others. While our perspectives and viewpoints differed because of our lived experiences, we all agreed that we should be working together to foster a “marketplace of ideas” on our campuses. Suggestions included holding meetings under the Chatham House Rule, which would provide anonymity to speakers and encourage the sharing of information; increasing civic understanding through events like Carolina’s First Amendment Day; and organizing free speech conferences on our own campuses.

Free speech is complicated. Sometimes you feel like you are being forced to choose between your cultural identity and the rights of others to express their opinions. Perhaps, as Barack Obama said, “The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression; it is more speech.”  

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