Courtesy University of Tulsa

TU administration hosted panel on free speech

Panelists, which included both professors and students, discussed the relationship of free speech to private universities.

“How can we ensure that TU maintains its dedication to free inquiry while also stimulating an inclusive environment where all students feel welcome?”

Questions like this were among those discussed by the six panelists at Thursday’s free speech event. President Clancy and a colleague from Texas A&M moderated the affair.

The panelists were Matt Hindman, a political science professor; Holly Laird, an English professor; Tamara Piety, a professor of law; Garrett Chase, member of the TU Young Republicans; Jim Scholl, a doctoral candidate in psychology; and Kyla Sloan, a master’s student in speech pathology.

103 people attended the event. The TU Department of Women’s & Gender Studies and Tulsa Public Radio sponsored the panel discussion, which lasted about 90 minutes.

Piety said, of the First Amendment, “It’s actually what we call a negative liberty because it prevents the government from doing something. It’s essentially a check on government power.” However, she continued, “It does not extend, in full, to private universities.”

Private universities have the right to regulate the campus environment much more so than public ones. Piety also said that many “right to work” states don’t provide First Amendment protections in the workplace due to employment contracts.

Thus, we deal with losses in freedom of speech in places we don’t always think about.

Laird added that “most people with the privilege of an education want to uphold First Amendment rights.”

Piety reminded the audience of the First Amendment’s constrained breadth. “People think that someone or something barring ‘offensive’ language is in violation of the First Amendment. Yet, there has never been a time when the amendment was supposed to be 100-percent against the regulation of any type of speech.”

Her point is that many Americans might believe that the First Amendment bars the regulation of speech. In fact, as mentioned earlier, it prevents the government from making laws that infringe on free speech. Universities, especially private ones, can legally attempt to regulate rhetoric on their campuses.

Sloan articulated it a different way. “Free speech has consequences and we all must be held accountable for what we choose to say.” One can use hate speech (speech that attempts to dehumanize others), but one will be liable for the consequences.

Chase said that yes, colleges do have the right to regulate speech if needed, but “they must refer back to a set of principles or standards each time a decision of that order is made.”

Hindman suggested that TU should fall back on its mission statement when it reviews speakers to bring to campus. If a speaker’s tones or objectives don’t line up with the TU mission, that person adds little to the academic atmosphere.

One issue on TU’s campus is lack of participation in educational events, according to Sloan. “You can’t go to a gay pride event, grab some food and a shirt then bounce and expect to have gained anything new. In order to sustain free inquiry, you need to get out of your comfort zone and ask these groups questions to educate yourself.”

Sloan cited the fact that she’s personally attended Young Republicans meetings and asked members what the club’s stance is on certain issues and policies. “The Association
of Black Collegians held an event last week on the Black Lives Matter movement and nobody from Young Republicans came.”

Hindman followed up that free inquiry is also not the same thing as free speech. “TU would not tolerate a geology professor who espouses the merits of flat earth theory in his class, even though it is protected under free speech.” Ideas of academic merit are what make free inquiry thrive.

He concluded that “students should not be shielded, but ideas that are purposefully inflammatory do not add anything of academic merit to the collegiate atmosphere.”

Hindman and several other panelists cited the antics of Milo Yiannopoulos, racist ideals of Richard Spencer and purposefully inflammatory remarks of Ann Coulter as examples.

Clancy concluded the event, articulating his “Big 3” for TU. “Academic research ferrets out the bad ideas. We want our students to get out of their comfort zones to challenge their standard ways of thinking. And of course, we want to provide the best learning environment possible to all students.”

Post Author: Alex Garoffolo