Forum on campus speech starts dialogue

Students, faculty and staff nearly fill the Chamber Hall

From left to right: Jermel McClure, Student Assocation president; Jonathan Karp, associate professor of Judaic Studies and chair of the Faculty Senate; and Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America, participate in a discussion on the First Amendment. Image Credit: Jonathan Cohen.
From left to right: Jermel McClure, Student Assocation president; Jonathan Karp, associate professor of Judaic Studies and chair of the Faculty Senate; and Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America, participate in a discussion on the First Amendment.
From left to right: Jermel McClure, Student Assocation president; Jonathan Karp, associate professor of Judaic Studies and chair of the Faculty Senate; and Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America, participate in a discussion on the First Amendment. Photography: Jonathan Cohen.

A forum titled “Campus Speech: What are the limits?” nearly filled the Anderson Center’s Chamber Hall on Wednesday as students, faculty and staff came to start a dialogue on the First Amendment – focusing particularly on freedom of speech. A question-and-answer period followed a keynote and panel discussion, becoming somewhat contentious as some members of the audience pushed back about offensive speech and their feelings of safety.

Sponsored by the Faculty Senate and the Provost’s Office, the forum was scheduled months ago to explore the role of freedom of speech on the Binghamton University campus as well as campus efforts to create a diverse, inclusive community, and what, if any, limits there are to campus speech.

Jonathan Karp, associate professor of history and Judaic studies and chair of the Faculty Senate, moderated the small panel that included Jermel McClure, a senior majoring in sociology and politics, philosophy and law, and president of the Student Association; and Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America, the leading voice of writers in the U.S.

Citing the many volatile situations around the country concerning controversial speakers on college campuses, Karp said that, “While we have experienced few episodes of such magnitude, we thought it wise to begin conversation before such a disruption occurred at Binghamton.

“Every day questions arise about what is permitted and prohibited and the protection of speech rights,” he said. “This is the first of a two-part series on these very complex topics.”

Nossel, who gave a keynote, said she hopes this proactive approach will be productive for Binghamton.

She spoke of a woman who said the First Amendment wasn’t written for her. “Those are jarring words from someone alienated from the foundational freedom that underpins our society,” Nossel said. “She was African-American, so when rights were handed out, she wouldn’t have been at the table. Such speech is protected by the First Amendment, but if it’s only brought up when someone is offended, you might question if it’s for you.”

Over the last few years, the country has become alarmed about what’s happening to speakers on college campuses, Nossel said, noting that there have been different reactions depending on the campus and the speaker. “There have been protests over provocative speakers that have erupted into violence; administrators have been put on leave, demoted or fired; students are taking leave of their senses; faculty are cowering in fear and scrubbing syllabi. Isn’t the point of colleges and universities to encounter all kinds of people and opinions? You’re supposed to find your values tested and to get into some of the best intellectual arguments of your life. This all seems counter to what the university is about.”

But context matters more than ever before – and in several ways, Nossel said. “Students are pushing for and asking for answers that a previous generation never considered. There’s a generational difference. Change is hard but mores and expectations change,” she said.

The second piece of context, she said, is the level of bias and discrimination that exist on campuses. The number of white supremacists has tripled in recent years as they feel the need to defend the white heterosexual family.

“We often say that the answer to offensive speech is more speech, but the demand can fall disproportionally on certain populations who fear risk of deportation or other consequences,” Nossel said. “Words do matter and anyone who suggests otherwise hasn’t studied history, psychology or our current president. Words can cause emotional damage, harm academic performance and even affect suicides.”

We all need to determine what the answers are to being more inclusive while maintaining uncompromising protection for free speech, Nossel said. “The battle is that these two sets of obligations can coexist.”

Some provocative speakers want attention, so the worst thing to do is shut them down, she added. “But don’t just throw up your hands and say there’s nothing we can do. We need to recognize this dual role. Yes, it’s a forum of free speech, but it’s also a speaker.”

Nossel also said that, when it comes to safe spaces it’s not an either-or. “Students should be free to create safe spaces of their own. That’s freedom of association, a protected right, but it should be entered into voluntarily and knowingly. We should be free to meet and congregate with those we’re comfortable with but fortify ourselves for some discomfort. Our pitched battles over free speech on our campuses are not insoluble. The real risk is that free speech seems to be only for those who wish to offend.

“By working to understand and demonstrating how compatible we can be will help ensure campuses are open to all people and ideas,” she added.

Before opening the forum for questions from the audience, the panelists discussed a number of factors that Nossel touched on and that play into the atmosphere on campuses and at Binghamton.

“Words matter and do have impact,” McClure said. “People are not always thinking about the impact their words will have on other students. It’s really interesting to me the dual role that exists when it comes to the University making sure we’re facilitating a forum discussion and we can learn and grow while defining the morals that are important to us as a University.

“Also, what do we need to do to define what we consider to be safe spaces and other spaces that are more open to everyone,” he added.

“It’s fact that words can harm and there’s not always an awareness or appreciation of how that harm is reflected. It’s generational, gender, race. Words can hit very differently for different populations,” Nossel said. “If faculty have to anticipate every audience they will potentially reach, they might just zip shut, but the idea of a certain level of conscientiousness is something that we should ask of ourselves. The duty of care you owe may depend on who you are. Students should be entitled to some room and forgiveness due to their inexperience, but professors should be more aware.”

Karp said there seems to be an eruption recently surrounding these issues – a worrisome dismissiveness that free speech is a kind of a weapon used by the powerful to oppress the less powerful. There is a widespread perception that “political correctness is creating a chilling effect on campuses that is in a sense neutralizing the University’s purpose and nature as a center for discussion and the critical examination of ideas, he said. “Is there a crisis?”

“The question of crisis, I think, is when people put forward that there’s a free-speech crisis on campus, but what they mean is that political correctness is run amuck,” Nossel said. “I don’t think that’s nonexistent, but it’s not the crux. The crux is more about issues of diversity and inclusion. The problem they’re trying to solve is a legitimate one. It’s not an either-or, a crisis of political correctness or of conservatives. There’s some of both.”

McClure added that campuses may now be experiencing more contention because of the national position we’re in and the fact that college is a microcosm of the world, replicating conflicts that exist in the wider society on our campuses. “We need to know what conversations need to be had to allow us to understand free speech in general.”

“My students and my own children have a different attitude than I do,” Karp said. “They feel that there is simply no place for hate speech. They don’t see the complexity of the issue. Do you perceive that there’s a frustration that there should be more limitations imposed and the risk is too great for this kind of permissiveness?”

“Students on campus are really concerned that there are other people who spew hate and make us uncomfortable and feel unsafe and they can’t be who they are in their space,” McClure said. “But it’s not a yes-or-no answer, one side might be super uncomfortable, but others say ‘It’s my right to be able to say this as defined by the law.’ It’s really confusing.”

Nossel reviewed exceptions to the First Amendment, which include inciting violence, making threats or harassing someone.

“These are unlawful. Any kind of harassment is prohibited,” she said. “Hate speech encompasses all these things, but some forms of hateful speech are protected. Why not make all of it out of bounds? The fact is there’s no consensus of what should be included in this definition of hateful speech. It’s a very contested issue.”

Karp asked: Can you tell us not simply what are the dangers of prohibiting offensive speech, but what are some of the values of free speech? How is it a positive good in our society?”

“It really has so much to do with what we love about our own society. It is diverse where, as much as we face grave tensions, it’s far worse in other parts of the world where there are barriers that can’t even be talked about and debated,” she said. “We have newspapers, shows, websites where the origin was here and there’s such a vibrant level of discourse and connectedness and information that has occurred. China has robust social media, but it’s a walled garden by the government. You don’t see the kind of innovation you have here in the U.S. Because of this level of engagement, we can offer these protections that help to safeguard.”

“It does allow you to solidify your beliefs,” McClure said. “I definitely appreciate the education I have received and it allows me to realize why I have the viewpoints that I do have. We need it to grow into the leaders that we want to be.”

When questioned by members of the audience McClure, who said he represents all students as their president, stated that it’s important to consult constituents when dealing with free-speech issues. “The worst thing you can do is shock individuals. A campus appearance by a speaker does not constitute campus approval and that goes back to being able to have these conversations about free speech, but it doesn’t mean we’re all agreeing.”

One PhD student noted he doesn’t feel safe anywhere on campus and had expected a different format for the forum where offensive speech would “be talked about for real.”

Another student leader of campus organizations said that every year she has been here some incident has occurred and asked who is bring protected – the racists or those protesting racism?

“Students should talk about what we think an appropriate response,” McClure said. “But this is a problem in our society and a lot of this does come down to the fact that as a society and community at Binghamton there needs to be a conversation about what we will and will not tolerate.”

Contact Karp at karp@binghamton.edu with feedback and suggestions for designing a fall event to complement the forum.

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