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Speak Out, Listen Up

Battlegrounds in the Right to Free Speech, Campuses Work toward Tolerance

Two hundred forty years ago, Americans won a hard-fought war for independence, and a decade later, their leaders preserved that freedom in the Bill of Rights.

Over the next two centuries, the people and their government have sometimes struggled to define, and perhaps redefine, just what those rights mean.

In recent years, university campuses—particularly those of public schools—have become battlegrounds in the right to free speech, a right protected under the First Amendment. Protests have raged against campus speakers, and complete shutdowns of their speeches have resulted. Derogatory images have flashed across social media, and offended students have demanded punishment of the sender. Students have petitioned university administrators to withhold recognition of campus organizations they deem offensive.

IUP President Michael Driscoll said IUP has seen situations like this in the past. This spring, two came to the forefront.

In March, when a professor tried to bar a student from her class for what she said was disruptive behavior, the student countered that his free-speech rights had been abridged. In April, some protested the campus appearance of the head of a national conservative student organization.

“I think people have become much more sensitive to divisive rhetoric and resorted to protest much more frequently,” Driscoll said. “Certainly, people will talk about our country becoming more divided, politically and otherwise, over the last several years. I think we are just reflecting that, in terms of the way people talk about each other and to each other and how tolerant people are or are not of some of those rhetorical styles.”

An article in the March 12 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education, “College Students Want Free Speech—Sort Of,” focused on a survey of 3,000 college students that showed 56 percent believe protecting free speech is extremely important. Yet, that same survey showed that almost half of students favor speech codes that limit some expression, and 73 percent support policies that restrict hate speech, such as racial slurs.

But, as Gwen Torges, associate professor in IUP’s Political Science Department, said, “The First Amendment gives protection to those whose ideas we may find offensive and intolerant. I try to tell students it’s a two-way street. To have my ideas protected, and if I am able to speak my ideas, I have to be willing to listen to the ideas of others, and I am not going to like a lot of those.”

According to media reports, the confrontation between IUP senior Lake Ingle, a religious studies major, and Alison Downie, an associate professor in the Religious Studies Department, was prompted by a video of a transgender minister who spoke about her growing awareness of biases against women after her gender transformation. Following the video, Downie asked the female students in class to respond first. None of them spoke up, and after some seconds passed, Ingle jumped in, arguing there wasn’t widespread discrimination against women and telling Downie she had restricted his right to free speech by making him wait to answer.

As part of IUP’s Free Speech Project, Political Science faculty member Gwen Torges filmed three videos that explain what is and is not protected under the First Amendment.

After some argument, Downie attempted to have Ingle permanently removed from the class for disruptive behavior, and the matter went to IUP’s Academic Integrity Board for review. But before results of the review were announced, Ingle spoke with conservative media outlets—including a Fox News television talk show—and a firestorm hit campus. Driscoll intervened, suspended the Academic Integrity process for the case, and allowed Ingle back into Downie’s class. Although some accused him of “caving in to conservative media,” Driscoll said he made the decision based on a review of university policy, which he recommended revising to deal better with the complex issues of classroom speech.

There was also controversy when the IUP chapter of Turning Point USA announced it would host an appearance by Charlie Kirk, founder of the national organization. On its website, TPUSA’s stated goal is to educate youth on the virtues of free markets, fiscal responsibility, and free speech.

But the April 6 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that a Turning Point brochure states the organization’s first and primary goal is to “commandeer” the top spot in student governments of universities, so it can gain influence over how portions of university money and student fees are spent. According to some media reports, the national organization has been accused of racism and ties to the alt-right, although Kirk denies the allegations.

Brian Swatt, a senior and the outgoing president of IUP’s Student Government Association, said the SGA reviewed the matter of the invitation to Kirk. It found that IUP’s Turning Point chapter was not connected to any controversial social positions and had met all prerequisites for recognition as a campus student organization. In the interests of free speech, the SGA backed Kirk’s appearance.

That stance didn’t sit well with everyone. In comments in the April 10 issue of the Penn, IUP’s NAACP chapter president Alaura Johnson said, “Many students do not feel safe, and Driscoll has made it OK for TPUSA to be here under ‘freedom of speech.’”

Ultimately, about 200 attended Kirk’s talk at the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex. Although some protesters gathered outside, there was no unruly behavior or disturbance to the speech.

IUP is not alone in confronting such incidents.

Last fall, students from a campus chapter of Black Lives Matter at the College of William & Mary in Virginia protested to the point of shutting down a talk by the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. The reason: The ACLU had defended the right of white nationalists to rally in Charlottesville.

A confrontation over free speech took place last fall at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. A graduate student screamed at and made an obscene gesture toward an undergraduate supporting Turning Point USA. According to various media reports, administrators and eventually state lawmakers became aware of the incident and relieved the graduate student of teaching responsibilities. Later, other UN-Lincoln graduate students expressed concern for their freedom of speech and fear they could be fired if officials disagreed with their teaching. 

The incident at Nebraska also showed that problems with civil discourse go well beyond college campuses. In the spring, the weekly radio program This American Life focused on the confrontation and, according to the show’s host and producer, Ira Glass, described what happened from the points of view of all involved.

Speaking at graduation ceremonies for the Columbia University School of Journalism, Glass said the reporters “did a careful and sympathetic and evenhanded job parsing out everyone’s motives and what we should make of it all.”

Still, he got comments from a few who seemed offended that the show even tried to present objectively the viewpoint of the student from TPUSA.

“This intolerance to even listen to someone—that’s new among our audience,” Glass told the graduates. “Three or four years ago, we never got this reaction.”

To stem the tide of intolerance, universities are initiating new programs to explain what the First Amendment means on a campus.

Some, like the University of San Diego and Stanford University, have recently sponsored debates on free speech. The University of Pennsylvania has developed a Committee on Open Expression, in part to help students handle talk they may consider offensive. In one instance, according to Penn Today, as antigay preachers spoke on campus, students protested by holding humorous signs and simultaneously collecting donations for a local LGBT center.

IUP administrators are also looking at new ways to educate their students. 

Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Timothy Moerland said updated university policies governing classroom behaviors are needed at IUP.

“I think our faculty would appreciate a bit more guidance about their rights and responsibilities in the classroom,” Moerland said. “That would be coupled with our clearer statement of expectation that respectful dialogue will be the primary tool that we use in the classroom. I think students would appreciate that also. We will be working with representatives of the Student Government Association at some stage of the process we are kicking off here.”

Moerland asked Torges and her colleague David Chambers, chair of IUP’s Political Science Department, to spearhead the IUP Free Speech Project, which aims to educate students on the First Amendment. Torges has filmed three videos published on IUP’s YouTube channel. She explained in one video that true threats against a targeted individual and speech that promotes violence or unlawful actions are prohibited by the First Amendment. Offensive speech is not.

“To the surprise of many, hate speech is protected by the First Amendment,” she said, “especially on a college campus, where our core mission is to engage in the exchange of ideas, to talk about tough ideas, to challenge us to our very core.”

Yaw Asamoah and Kate Linder

Last winter, Yaw Asamoah and Kate Linder collected feedback on a draft of IUP’s Diversity Action Plan, which was finalized in March. The plan calls for a mechanism for reporting and responding to acts of intolerance, among other recommendations.(Photo by Keith Boyer)

Torges noted that IUP is a public university and therefore a government agency bound by the First Amendment. If an administration decided to limit hate speech, she said, the population might agree. “But administrations change. The idea is, you don’t want to give governments that power.”

Also protected under the First Amendment is the right to protest—that is, unless it infringes on the rights of others. “Peaceful protest is great. That is part of the dialogue,” Torges said. “Disinviting or creating such a scene that people can’t enter to speak at all, that’s illegal.”

Yaw Asamoah, dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, and Kate Linder, associate vice president for Student Affairs for University and Community Engagement, have cochaired the President’s Commission on Diversity and Inclusion since its formation in 2016. The faculty members, staff members, and students who make up the commission came up with about a dozen recommendations. Two of the key recommendations, which officials plan to implement by fall, center on how IUP reacts when students are hurt by something—such as offensive speech—that happens on campus.

“A nasty incident would occur, and it would take 10 days for the administration to learn about it,” Asamoah said. “People were frustrated because they didn’t know how to report annoyances of that type.”

To address concerns, a subcommittee of the group is working this summer to develop a better reporting system and improved ways to respond.

“We claim we care about diversity and inclusion, but no one would know where to go, where to find help,” Asamoah said. “We have to assert it and make it more visible.”

As outlined by President Driscoll in a May 4 memo to students and employees, other plans are under way to centralize efforts on diversity and inclusion. A small task force will develop methods of conflict resolution so disagreements will not end in prolonged, adversarial processes. And by fall, Asamoah expects to have in place an IUP pledge, which Driscoll has described as a visible guide and aspirational standard that clearly shows IUP is no place for hate.

Driscoll believes outside groups such as TPUSA and the progressive Student Power Networks “are wanting to win the hearts and minds of our students to their positions. So, they’re intruding much more directly into the lives of universities.”

But he also thinks students themselves can pave a way for civil discourse. He pointed to an incident that occurred last fall. An IUP student shared an image with racist overtones that spread on social media and upset many students.

Despite hurt feelings, some students took the matter into their own hands. “They showed real maturity and leadership, even though some were members of the targeted group,” Driscoll said. “They stepped up and engaged the student who put forward this racist image and who was very apologetic. And people welcomed him in that discussion in some significant ways.

“Too often there is total rejection: One person is right, and one person is wrong, and there can be no discussion. The classroom incident that we saw last spring, I think, reflects a bit of that in terms of a student being absolutely certain about being right about something.” 

A senior political science major from Philadelphia, Austin Gibson represented multicultural students, among other groups, on the SGA in spring 2018. He said a lot of students were opposed to Charlie Kirk’s visit to campus and wanted the talk canceled. But he counseled that Kirk had the right to talk. If they could stop Kirk, then in the future, someone could limit their own freedom of speech. He said those opposed could peacefully protest Kirk’s talk.

Instead of causing a commotion, Gibson said, the night Kirk visited, many potential protesters decided instead to attend an alternative event: a lecture by Holocaust survivor Moshe Baran. That gives him hope that young people can work together through conflict.

“We as youth are the ones who are going to take over. We are becoming more accepting of each other,” he said. “That is what makes America great.”