UT panel discusses freedom of speech on campuses

Brooke Sjoberg

A contentious debate on the difference between protected and unprotected speech brought over 100 students and faculty to discuss and hear arguments from all sides of an ongoing national conversation.

The Division of Diversity and Community Engagement and the Opportunity Forum hosted a panel on Wednesday evening featuring UT alumni, professors and Ross Ramsey, executive editor of the Texas Tribune. Moderated by Leonard Moore, interim vice president for Diversity and Community and Engagement, the panel was the second event in the “Free Speech on College Campuses: Where to Draw the Line?” series.

“Universities are still a place where people go for ideas to fight,” Ramsey said. “It’s where people go to talk about uncomfortable things and hear points of view they don’t otherwise hear. When institutions get into the business of saying ‘We’re going to allow these kinds of speech or this kind of conversation,’ there’s a fine line between stopping ideas they don’t like and stopping behaviors they don’t like.”

College campuses are too concerned with creating safe spaces rather than brave spaces, social work professor Lori Holleran Steiker said.

“A lot of the masking tape that we put across our own mouths and across student’s mouths are because they’re afraid of offending, and I think we need a space to have difficult dialogues,” Steiker said. “The goal is to be strong in your conviction and still keep open ears and honest dialogue, because I think that’s the challenge.”

Moore posed the question of whether controversial speakers, such as Richard Spencer, should be allowed to speak at the University and whether the University should have jurisdiction regarding the decision.

“I don’t want to give that power to the president of the United States, or the governor of Texas or the president of the University of Texas,” law professor David Rabban said. “There ought to be equal rights of student groups to hear the speakers they want. That doesn’t equate the value or the humanity of the speakers, but it has to do with the right of freedom of speech.”

Marie Girishejah, health and society freshman, said she found the discussion eye-opening to the issue of harmful versus harmless speech.

“Just because someone says something doesn’t mean that I have to feel bad about it, but I also don’t have to be quiet about it,” Girishejah said. “If it doesn’t affect me, it can affect someone else.”