“Free Speech on College Campuses” Panel Offers Differing Views on the Limits of Free Speech


By James Treuthardt

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Coinciding with Free Speech Week, “Free Speech on College Campuses: Where to Draw The Line?” offers no clear answer as to where the line on free speech should be drawn.

 

This event comes at a time where free speech is a hotly contested issue on college campuses. It was sponsored by the University of Texas’ Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis and the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement,

 

From protests surrounding Richard Spencer’s visit at the University of Florida to protests and the subsequent cancellation of Ann Coulter’s speech at UC Berkeley, debates over what can and cannot be said on college campuses has permeated the national conversation.

 

“The misunderstanding of the 1st amendment is unbelievable, “ said H.W. Perry, Jr., a government and law professor at the University of Texas who spoke on the panel. Perry, who specializes in constitutional and public law, explains the 1st Amendment only protects someone from punishment from the government for their speech— it does not protect them from the public itself.

 

However, we need to look at the “psychological harm of speech” to determine whether or not it should be acceptable when evaluating speech students use, said Shetal Vohra-Gupta from UT’s Institute for Urban and Policy Research.

 

Brianna Davis, a Ph.D student at UT studying Educational Leadership and Policy, corroborated that view, saying resources need to be put in place to protect students who undergo that sort of harm. An example would be alternate assignments if students label a reading “too harmful.”

 

However, when pressed on that issue by moderator Leonard Moore, who inquired into whether or not she would allow a student to skip out on reading Malcom X’s writing due to religious reasons, Davis went back on that view. Instead, she offered to work with the student to find a solution instead.

 

In trying to determine what kind of curriculum students should and should not be able to opt out of, hard questions often prevent clear answers. When material is incredibly important for the class curriculum, when and where should the lines be drawn?

 

“Words can harm, they can hurt, they can damage,” Perry said. However, he notes that “in our society we put our thumbs on the side of free speech over those other things.” To restrict free speech to protect people from words would be incorrect, even though he believes it’s important to recognize the harm words can create.

 

While no clear consensus was reached as to what limits free speech should have at UT, Calvin Graves, a sophomore Geosciences major in attendance, remains confident in free speech’s role in UT.

 

“It is one of our rights,” Graves said. “It has a good place here.”