PRKent Student Participates in National “Free Speech on Campus” Conference in Washington, D.C.

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by Brenna Parker

I was given an amazing opportunity to participate in the “Free Speech on Campus” conference at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., April 2. Hosted by the Newseum Institute and co-sponsored by the Knight Foundation, I joined 40 other college students from around the United States to speak with media professionals and experts on the First Amendment and to explore free speech issues on college campuses through panels and roundtable discussions. Together, we were able to have respectful and civil conversations about free expression involving race, ethnicity, class, gender and sexual identity on college campuses.

The day started off with a panel discussion about the current status of free speech on college campuses. Peter Bonilla, the associate director of the Individual Rights Defense Program at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), said over the last year, the biggest free speech issue has been the widespread exercise of student protests on college campuses.

“You don’t think necessarily that much about the implications of what you are doing on campus for higher education ten years down the road,” Bonilla said. “But I think that we are going to look back on this period as an extremely important formative period of time in the conscious of the American campus.”

Topics in this panel surrounded the idea that students, and even faculty members, often do not feel that they have a voice on campus. Bonilla said that universities should not demonize students because it sets the tone for a campus.

David Hudson is a First Amendment expert who talked about how fundamental free speech is on college campuses. Universities are now zoning speech and creating ‘free speech zones’ in order to control the narrative on campus. Hudson warned the effects of free speech zones are limiting to students. The goal should be to create a campus where all speech, regardless of location, is free.

JMC Professor and Knight Chair in Scholastic Journalism Mark Goodman moderated the second panel about debate, dispute and discussion on campuses worldwide and how they translate online. University of Missouri students Tim Tai and Mark Schierbecker highlighted free speech debates nationwide. Last year, video footage of the students and a Mizzou professor requesting “muscle” to prevent them from filming a student protest went viral.

Kent State University College of Communication and Information Dean Amy Reynolds spoke about how the May 4, 1970, Kent State shooting has a lasting effect on our campus. It was amazing to see students from across the country learn about May 4 and gain a better understanding of what it meant in terms of students’ First Amendment rights. Dean Reynolds mentioned that May 4 changed the fabric of our university history and campus for future Kent State students. No matter what Kent State does, we will never be able to leave behind the legacy of May 4. She said because of May 4, she thinks that the university is more open and receptive to students backlash and criticism. Professor Francine Huff from Florida A&M added that protests today can become international public events thanks to the widespread use of technology and mobile phones, something not present at May 4.

As a Kent State student, I think May 4 is a defining moment in American history, where people saw the absolute destruction of their First Amendment rights on a college campus. I am very passionate about social justice, and I believe students should be given the opportunity to voice concern. Having attended this conference, I appreciate Kent State more because I realized our university supports all kinds of thought and discussion and students do not take their right to free speech for granted. It was amazing hearing from the other 40 students talk about how they are limited to these “free speech zones” and are completely silenced by university executives. Higher education is going through this bizarre phase where we are unintentionally limiting free speech and expression by “zoning” or creating “safe zone” free speech to sections of campus. The idea should be to have all of campus be open to free speech, not limit it to specific areas.

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Later in the day, Newseum CEO Jeffrey Herbst hosted a roundtable discussion about individual cases of conflict with free speech on campuses. Political correctness was a topic the group spent a lot of time discussing. One student from Northwestern University discussed how she was frustrated with the idea that if a student is offended by another’s derogatory hate speech, it is not the responsibility of the person offended to educate the offender about why they are being offensive. She brought up a good point, one that I had never considered. Through my experience working in student affairs as a resident assistant, university officials have stressed that we must educate students about the effects of offensive language and use the opportunity as a learning experience for the student. The student from Northwestern helped me see that it is the role of the active bystander to use her freedom of speech to educate the person who is using offensive speech and not the responsibility of the victim to educate every intolerant person.

We were given a sneak preview of the Free Expression on Campus survey conducted by Gallup. The survey found that “U.S. college students are highly confident that First Amendment rights are secure, yet close to half say some campus speech restrictions can be justified.”

Survey Results

  • 59 percent of students have little or no trust in the media to report the news fairly and accurately.
  • 70 percent say students should not be able to prevent the press from covering student protests on campus.
  • Students are far more positive than U.S. adults about security of First Amendment rights, but black students are less confident about the right to assemble.
  • Students support free speech and press rights in principle, but a significant minority are willing to entertain restrictions.
  • College students do not trust the press, and views are mixed on whether social media enhances or stifles free expression.

The conference was the first portion of a three-part project funded by the Knight Foundation that will result in a booklet entitled “Guide to Free Speech on Campus,” which will be published later this year.

My hope for Kent State and specifically the School of Journalism and Mass Communication is to help students recognize and celebrate the First Amendment. Students are aware of the First Amendment and what it means, but not necessarily what each freedom individually signifies. Having reflected on what role the First Amendment plays in my life, I think both myself and other Millennials do not view these rights as a privilege. In this country, I can’t legally be stoned or killed for voicing my opinion. Yet, Malala was shot in the face by the Taliban for voicing her wish to go to school and receive an education. I would love to see JMC host another JMC conversation on the topic of free speech. I think hosting a conversation within JMC would be a learning opportunity for students and an opportunity for them to think about how they can improve their own use of their free speech in their own lives and on campus.

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