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Panel at U.Va. talks free speech and the First Amendment

The forum focused on the future of community and free speech at U.Va., college campuses

<p>Panelists from left to right: Roger Worthington, Suzanne Nossel, Alexis Gravely, Jelani Cobb and Leslie Kendrick.&nbsp;</p>

Panelists from left to right: Roger Worthington, Suzanne Nossel, Alexis Gravely, Jelani Cobb and Leslie Kendrick. 

PEN America, an organization that works to protect open expression and acknowledge the power of words, hosted a panel discussion in McLeod Hall Wednesday to address how diversity and inclusion can be promoted on college campuses while protecting the right of free speech. 

PEN America collaborated with Thomas Katsouleas, the University’s executive vice president and provost, in the creation of the event.

The panel included Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of PEN America, Jelani Cobb, a contributor to The New Yorker and director of the Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights at Columbia University, and Leslie Kendrick, vice dean and professor of Law at the University. Alexis Gravely, a third-year Curry and College student and an assistant managing editor for The Cavalier Daily, served as the student panelist. 

The panel comes as the University is considering time, place and manner policy changes proposed by the Deans Working Group that would limit the ability of individuals unaffiliated with the University to gather on Grounds in outdoor spaces, such as the McIntire Amphitheater and the North Rotunda Plaza. 

The regulations on outside speakers would create a list of designated spaces where such unaffiliated persons can gather, limit the number of attendees and require advanced reservation of spaces during specific hours of the work week for set lengths of time.

University President Teresa Sullivan introduced Roger Worthington — executive director of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education at the University of Maryland — as the moderator of the discussion and then turned the event over to him.

Nossel said PEN America chose to host a discussion on free speech at the University in light of the events of Aug. 11 and 12 in which white nationalists demonstrators marched with torches through University Grounds and held the deadly Unite the Right rally in downtown Charlottesville. 

Nossel added that the University was among a number of colleges across the country — including the University of California Berkeley, Middlebury College and the University of Maryland College Park — chosen as locations for free speech discussions as they were “the sites of the most intense controversies.”

Protesters demonstrated on Berkeley’s campus last September in response to a talk being hosted by conservative writer Ben Shapiro, resulting in the arrest of nine people. Middlebury students shut down a speech by author Charles Murray — who has authored a book where he connected socioeconomic status with race and intelligence — in March 2017. At Maryland, students also demonstrated through a march and sit-it protest after a noose was found in a fraternity house.

“For many students the way they are hearing about the first amendment on campus … is through hate speech … insults and degradation,” Nossel said. “Our goal is to reclaim this broader meaning of free speech … and the notion that we can draw a line around some types of anti-democratic speech.”

Worthington asked Nossel which issues were being surfaced during their discussions of free speech at American colleges. In relation to the demonstrations at the University of Maryland, Nossel said the goal of such protests was not to stymy free speech but promote inclusivity on campuses. 

“For many of the students who are accused of being intolerant to free speech, that’s not the crux of their agenda,” Nossel said, “The crux of their agenda is inclusion …  at times this may spill over into silencing and punishing speech.” 

Nossel added that colleges across the country are struggling to strike the balance between individuals’ free speech rights and preventing hate speech. The panelists then debated the difference between upsetting speech and violence-provoking speech. 

As an example of true violence-provoking speech, Cobb spoke about the 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation”, which has been condemned for its negative portrayal of African American men and its depictions of the Klu Klux Klan. This film was the first to show a scene of crosses being burned to instill fear in African Americans in the American south during the Jim Crow era — which Cobb said procoked real violence against African Americans. 

“One of the great benefits of the First Amendment is the protection of art,” Cobb said. “[However], this became an instance of life imitating art quite literally [and] leading to hate crimes against people of color in the South.”

Cobb emphasized the importance of understanding that such forms of free expression that lead to violence should not be tolerated. 

“There is a conflation that believing the inability to subordinate other people diminishes your own freedom,” Cobb said. 

Gravely said that the most defining factor on whether a speaker should be allowed on a college campus is based on the safety of the student population. 

“If there is a credible threat to students … they shouldn’t be invited to campus,” Gravely said.  “But if they have views that they want to debate that won’t harm people … I think they should be allowed.” 

In relation to the University’s proposed time, place and manner restrictions for the organization of unaffiliated groups on Grounds, Kendrick said the goal of these policies was to balance the right to free expression with reasonable limitations. 

“The concern is to try to preserve the energy … of the University toward speech that is connected to the University,” Kendrick said. “[It would] provide spaces for people who want to speak … but they would have to book in advance and have time restrictions.” 

The panelists also explored the concept of free speech in the broader context of American democracy and freedom in general. Kendrick said the United States government has historically been protective of free speech but cited a ban on abolition pamphlets during the 1830s as an incident when American freedom of expression in America has been limited. 

“The U.S. has by the far the most speech protective regime in the world,” Kendrick said. “It looks very different from even other western democracies. The alternative to the First Amendment is democratic decision making … but do we trust our government to generate those regulations? There are many moments where they have failed in this.” 

Correction: This article previously misidentified Roger Worthington as a professor and chair of the Department of Counseling, Higher Education and Special Education at the University of Maryland. He is currently the executive director of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education at the University of Maryland. 


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