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Free speech heated on campuses

Posted: June 15, 2017 | Tags: First Amendment

Free speech controversies on college campuses nationwide show some experts that students need education about First Amendment protections earlier and often, according to a panel of academic and free speech authorities who spoke Wednesday afternoon at the Newseum. 

Panelists said many American college students overwhelmingly support the First Amendment but feel campus leaders should create policies that limit or restrict offensive speech. That shows a tension over what free speech is meant to do. 

"They support the First Amendment, but with significant exceptions,” Newseum CEO Jeffrey Herbst, who was a panelist, said of college students. 


Photo by Clairissa Baker, IRW

Panelists talk about campus press issues Wednesday at the Newseum.

A Knight Foundation study in 2016 found that 91 percent of high school students agreed people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions, but only 45 percent agreed people should be able to say what they want in public, even if it is offensive to others.  

Similarly, a recent survey found college students prefer an open environment, but 69 percent say colleges should be allowed to restrict “language that is intentionally offensive to certain groups,” according to a Knight Foundation and Newseum Institute study on college students. 

Speakers at the Knight TV Studio on Wednesday included John K. Wilson, co-editor of American Association of University Professors’ blog, and Catherine Ross, a George Washington University law professor. Gene Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute, moderated the panel. 

Herbst began by talking about speakers being turned down by college campuses because of political tension. But he said the “college bubble” in which many students find themselves is not the problem. Instead, the real problem to address is the attitude of students, Herbst said, because “students aren’t a blank slate when they cross into college on the first day.”

Incidents, such as the one in which the University of California, Berkeley disinvited Ann Coulter after threats of violence, according to reports by the Southern Poverty Law Center, have expanded debates about free speech on college campuses. 

Wilson, who wrote a book on academic freedom, provided a critique of the summary of the state of free speech.

The First Amendment has always been in a terrible state, he said, and there’s nothing special about millennials.  

Hypocrisies are everywhere, and “pretending one generation is the source,” Wilson said, is misguided. “Things are bad, and we need to deal with them because that’s the norm.” 

Among those in the audience was LaMonte Summers, a media law and ethics professor at Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism and Communication. 

Summers asked the panel if society needed to revisit how the First Amendment handles hate speech, mentioning a U.S. Supreme Court case in which a teenager burned a cross on the lawn of an African-American family. 

Summers attended the event because many of his students work in media and his classes have discussions about similar issues.

“I thought that critique was an excellent part of the panel,” Summers said. 

The panel raised concerns with students’ willingness to set limitations on free speech, even if it was to avoid hateful and offensive language. The way to address this issue with students, Herbst and Ross said, is to look at how society teaches the First Amendment in grades K-12. 

The panel agreed teachers and students need more robust lessons on the First Amendment, but Ross said the only way to combat offensive speech was more and better speech. 

“If you seek change, the First Amendment is your ally,” Herbst said. 

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