~ Photo of keynote speaker Dr. Tina Botts, taken by Khone Saysamongdy/Courtesy of The Collegian

Free speech and the First Amendment were in the spotlight at a forum held Nov. 1. Several hundred people attended the event, held in the North Gym. 

President Joseph I. Castro opened the event by saying, “I think our campus is the ideal place to have such a discussion. Universities, especially public universities, are inherently places for questioning, for critical thinking, for hearing ideas that challenge all of us and for an open exchange of ideas, even ones that we disagree with. Especially ones that we disagree with.”

Dr. Tina Botts, an associate professor of philosophy, gave the keynote address, entitled “Responsible Free Speech: John Stuart Mill, the First Amendment, and Social Progress.” 

“For some, talk of tempering freedom of speech with a sense of responsibility, however, may generate fear of the kind of censorship that the founders specifically intended to avoid,” Botts said.”After all, a key purpose of the first amendment was to ensure that government could not infringe upon the freedom of thoughts understood even at the time to be essential to a free and flourishing civil society. For such purposes, any talk of restricting speech, even self restriction, is anti-American or even immoral in some way. In the United States, we place a high value on liberty, and restrictions on speech are thought to be at odds with this value. But the reality is as opposed to the fear, is that freedom of speech was never thought to be absolute, even in this country. For the Framers, the Supreme Court, early political philosophers in liberty like John Stuart Mill, speech, like every other right came with responsibilities.”

Botts’ presentation was followed by a panel discussion on “First Amendment in Practice.” Panelists included Dr. Andrew Fiala, chair of the Department of Philosophy; Dr. Doug Fraleigh, Department of Communication; and Darryl Hamm, J.D., University General Counsel.

Dr. Kevin Ayotte, Department of Communication and Chair of Academic Senate, and ASI President Tim Ryan served as panel moderators.

“The main takeaway from Dr. Botts’ speech for me was that freedom of speech is an evolving concept,” Ryan said. “It was very enlightening to hear Dr. Botts, a First Amendment scholar, discuss both freedom of speech and hate speech in the context of Supreme Court decisions and the understanding of freedom of speech that those decisions leave us with today.”

The topic of trigger warnings – a statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc., alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material  -came up during the Q-and-A after Botts’ presentation as well as during the panel discussion.

Botts said students asking for trigger warnings aren’t saying we can’t discuss difficult topics, they are asking for sensitivity in those discussions. “It’s not what we talk about, it’s how we talk about it. … No topic is off limits. It’s just how we talk about it. And in following up, hurling racial epithets or misogynistic statements is not raising a topic for civilized discussion. It’s just publicly degrading.”  

Another recurring topic was preachers who periodically come on campus to preach in the Free Speech Area by the Peace Garden, using a form of “confrontational evangelicalism.” 

Hamm, counsel for the University, suggested that confronting these preachers is not a good idea. Fraleigh suggested silent protests or social media campaigns organized by students to counteract the preachers’ hateful speech.

In her closing remarks, Provost Dr. Lynnette Zelezny credited ASI President Ryan with the genesis for the idea of holding such an event. 

“He came to me at the beginning of the academic year, and we got this idea rolling,” Zelezny said. “I want to thank him for being on the cutting edge of freedom of speech and the First Amendment…. It’s a real tribute to the University that we bring together our students, staff and faculty in a unified way to interact on this important and challenging issue and then to share our passion for respectful discourse.”

Ryan said he can’t take full credit for the idea.

“It was really something that was born out of conversations that I had with Provost Zelezny and President Castro,” Ryan said. “With the national climate regarding freedom of speech being what it was through the semester, and what it continues to be, we want the campus to be a place for open dialogue for everyone. In order to help spread awareness about what freedom of speech and the First Amendment really means, we wanted to host an event that would serve that could educate students, faculty, and staff members about how to exercise one’s First Amendment rights and how to be respectful of others exercising that same right.”

The forum, sponsored by Associated Students, Inc., the Academic Senate and the Office of the Provost, was open to the entire campus community.