Panel explores complexities of free speech and its intersection with diversity

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The intricate balance between promoting free speech and diverse viewpoints while still ensuring campus is a welcoming place for all was the cornerstone of a Penn State panel discussion on Thursday (Oct. 27) that held the attention of hundreds in the audience and hundreds more online.

To help frame the night’s conversation, the discussion was preceded by a trio of skits that illustrated the complex intersection between diversity and First Amendment rights on college campuses — issues such as racially charged speech from one student to another, student activism and protests, and derogatory or offensive language by faculty members in the classroom. 

Penn State President Eric Barron, who hosted the discussion along with Vice Provost for Educational Equity Marcus Whitehurst, kicked off the panel talk by posing the question, “How can a university be inclusive, and make students, faculty and staff feel welcome, in the face of tremendously toxic language?"

“We value speech, and discussion, and the expression of ideas — otherwise we wouldn’t be a great university,” Barron said, speaking before a crowd of more than 300 in Freeman Auditorium on the University Park campus. “At the same time, we’ve come to live in a world of rather toxic political language, toxic racial language, and you could make a very long list of putting ‘toxic’ and then the word ‘language’ at the end of it. 

“It’s an incredible tension — a tension between a legal obligation, a constitutional right of free speech that, if restricted, you end up with countries that look like dictatorships for which you begin to question who gets to restrict whose speech. And the tension is with a moral obligation to be inclusive and educate the people of our Commonwealth and the nation.”

President Barron at First Amendment discussion

Penn State President Eric Barron welcomed a large audience of students and staff to 'The First Amendment and Diversity and Inclusion' panel discussion held the evening of Oct. 27 at the HUB-Robeson Center at University Park. The panel discussion focused on free speech issues and was part of Penn State's 'All In' initiative.

Image: Patrick Mansell

The discussion, part of Penn State’s ongoing commitment to fostering a culture where diversity is celebrated and people from all walks of life can come together and feel included, was moderated by Penn State Vice President and General Counsel Stephen Dunham and featured insights from four Penn State legal scholars — Carla Pratt, associate dean for academic affairs and educational equity, professor of law, and Nancy J. LaMont Faculty Scholar at Dickinson Law; Stephen Ross, professor of law and Lewis H. Vovakis Distinguished Faculty Scholar at Penn State Law; Victor Romero, associate dean for academic affairs, professor of law, and Maureen B. Cavanaugh Distinguished Faculty Scholar at Penn State Law; and Robert Richards, John and Ann Curley Professor of First Amendment Studies in the College of Communications.

The panelists spoke about the challenges, conflicts, tensions and even the opportunities that arise out of freedom of speech as it applies to diversity on college campuses.

“I think that in a public university context, more speech may often be a better solution than more law,” said Romero. “The First Amendment can be used as a tool to advance equality and inclusion.”

Romero offered the hypothetical of a student telling a faculty member that she is going to miss class to attend a Ku Klux Klan rally. Romero said that one law-based solution would be for the faculty member to simply not excuse the absence. However, Romero suggested that the First Amendment could be used as a vehicle to open a dialogue with that student about why she is attending the rally and have a discussion on the issue.

“In my experience as a teacher, more speech leads to more understanding, even around difficult subjects, as long as we can commit to civil, even if impassioned, discourse,” Romero said.

Audience at panel discussion

The audience was encouraged to ask questions and actively participate in 'The First Amendment and Diversity and Inclusion' panel discussion, presented by the Office of the President at Penn State's HUB-Robeson Center on Oct. 27.

Image: Patrick Mansell

An issue that permeated the discussion is the balance between restricting speech and encouraging discourse on minority or alternative viewpoints — even if those views are unpopular. 

“We don’t need a constitution, we don’t need a First Amendment, to protect the viewpoints and ideas that everybody likes,” Richards said. “The majority takes care of itself. You need a First Amendment to protect the minority viewpoint, the unpopular viewpoints, the viewpoints that people despise or would much rather have eradicated from public discourse.”

Bringing the issue of First Amendment rights back to the context of diversity and inclusion on college campuses, Dunham asked if public universities should have the legal power to discipline students whose speech makes other students feel uncomfortable, threatened, unsafe or disrespected. 

“In this country we do not recognize hate speech as a category of speech that can somehow be punished,” said Richards. “Threats are a different world. When you talk about true threats, and if it is indeed a true threat under the legal definition of that concept, then it is outside the scope of the First Amendment. … True threats have been taken out of the First Amendment as a category of protected speech.”

The panelists also explored avenues that students, faculty and staff could take to use their own First Amendment freedoms in a proactive manner to combat hateful or threatening speech when it is encountered — things such as holding counter demonstrations and sending counter messages to communicate an opposing viewpoint. 

“When students engage in the kind of speech that demeans other students on campus, that injures other students’ dignity. I think as leaders of the University we have a moral imperative to put our speech out there that this kind of behavior is not condoned by the administration, and that we need to send a counter message to the people whose dignity was injured that they are respected and welcomed,” said Pratt.

Ross closed the discussion by touching on political correctness and the idea that we can have honest conversations about sensitive or difficult topics without passing immediate judgment on others. 

“How do you navigate those boundaries? Ross asked. “How do you have a conversation about affirmative action, where not every opponent of affirmative action is racist? How do you have a comment about Israel, where not every critic of the Netanyahu government is anti-Semitic? There needs to be an openness in this conversation.”

The panel discussion was held under the auspices of “All In at Penn State: A Commitment to Diversity and Inclusion,” an ongoing effort to promote diversity and inclusion on all Penn State campuses. To learn more about the “All In” initiative and view a calendar of upcoming diversity and inclusion events, visit http://allin.psu.edu/. To view an archive video of the panel discussion in its entirety, visit http://allin.psu.edu/firstamendmentevent/.

Last Updated November 09, 2016