Panelists discuss free speech on college campuses
Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the School of Law at University of California, Irvine, was among the speakers at the event.
April 15, 2014
Student Life and Development and the Multicultural Center held a panel in the University Student Union Tuesday to discuss issues surrounding First Amendment rights and how they pertain to free speech on college campuses.
The panel opened with videos displaying content about Westboro Baptist Church, a Kansas-based church is known for its extreme ideologies against gay people and picketing military funerals, and the Genocide Awareness Project, a traveling exhibit that compares abortions to genocide.
The two main speakers at the event were Craig Smith, director of the Center for First Amendment Studies, and Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the School of Law at University of California, Irvine.
Chemerinsky opened the discussion with the meaning of the First Amendment and its importance to democracy and government.
“The First Amendment exists to protect the speech that we don’t like,” Chemerinsky said. “The speech that makes us uncomfortable — even the speech we detest.”
Chemerinsky said the First Amendment allows people to push for policy changes within a democratic society and to say basically anything they want, without being prohibited.
“Imagine if in the South in the late 1950s or early 1960s, a city said there can be no demonstrations on civil rights,” Chemerinsky said. “It would have tremendously limited the power of people to build support to change the law and to change society.”
Chemerinsky said he is a believer in the concept that “the best remedy for the speech we don’t like should be more speech.”
Smith said the standards for speech protected under the First Amendment present a difficult dilemma for campus officials. He says that some of the broad definitions of hate speech cause problems for campus officials trying to protect student’s best interests, while staying true to the First Amendment.
Chemerinsky said he agrees that these gray areas seem to be a hard line to draw between, as to what is seen as “threatening speech” and freedom of expression.
Aside from student free speech issues, the rights of professors are also an issue when it comes to rights inside of the classroom. Smith says that more education on the meaning of the First Amendment could help with issues inside the classroom.
One newer idea in place at some campuses is professors using “trigger notifications” on their class syllabi, Smith said. Trigger notifications are disclaimers about course material containing potentially traumatic subject matter so students can know ahead of time what to expect and opt out of attending class that day, he said.
University of California, Santa Barbara students have been pushing their professors to get these trigger notifications implemented into their curriculum, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Jeff Klaus, dean of students and associate vice president of student services, joined the panel discussion about how free speech issues affect Cal State Long Beach.
“Our job is to help students understand what the rules and regulations are … so we can educate more people,” Klaus said.
Larisa Hamada, director of the Office of Equity and Diversity, said the department is responsible for addressing issues relating to students feeling offended or discriminated against by different forms of expression.
“We can build an environment for learning of all different diverse perspectives, so it is a welcoming environment for everyone,” Hamada said.
Junior geography major Natalie Ortega said she was glad she attended the panel.
“What I took away from this discussion is that we need to educate each other, and not remain ignorant to other people’s feelings and attitudes,” Ortega said.