Panel discussion explores free speech at UNC

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“Free Speech and a Welcoming Campus?” was a panel held at 4 p.m. on Sept. 13 that included faculty and members of the community to address the coexistence of protected speech and differences of opinions held by college students.

The panel included Fleurette King, UNC Assistant Vice President for Equity and Inclusion; Britton Morrell, UNC Adjunct Faculty, Political Science and International Affairs; Reyna Anaya, UNC Assistant Director of Community Standards and Conflict Resolution and Jill Higham, Director of Philanthropy, American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado.  The event was hosted by the department of Humanities and Social Sciences Diversity Advisory Board.

The panel began with an introduction of the topic by Laura Connolly, Dean of UNC College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Connolly referenced far left protests at Reed College and the issue that arose at UNC when then presidential candidate Donald Trump hosted a rally on campus.

The university setting is for “understanding perspectives that we have a hard time understanding,” Connolly said during the introduction of the panel in reference to academic freedom and free speech.

Connolly then posed questions to the panel of four and the panelists gave a two or three minute remark they had prepared before the event. The first question posed was ‘how do you see a potential conflict between free speech and a welcoming campus?  What does a welcoming campus mean to you?’

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Anaya started the answers by saying that a welcoming campus was a place for all students to be their true authentic selves and conflict can arise especially with policy changes such as the cancellation of DACA and how UNC responds.

Morrell addressed the question by first saying that because UNC is a federally funded school, a discussion on free speech is needed because the First Amendment applies to us by virtue of the Fourteenth Amendment.  If it were a private institution, the First Amendment wouldn’t be relevant.  This constitutional law approach is how he framed his opinion on the matter.  Later on Morrell got a positive reaction from some in audience when he said that he is more of a purist and defends opinions no matter if they hurt someone’s feelings.

King drew on a metaphor.  King said that free speech is like driving and there are a lot of different cars on the road but there are also regulations that ensure a certain standard of safety.

Higham drew on the dichotomy of working for an institution that defended the right of assembly for the Unite the Right rally that ended in the death of Heather Heyer.  Higham said that the ACLU is “bruised” but will always work to protect free speech.

The panel continued with a few more prepared remarks then opened up to questions from the audience.  Most of the event was focused on the difference between the legal right to say something offensive and the ethics of doing so. Audience members posed questions about the duty of students to advocate for themselves as well as the lack of presence of faculty at rallies.  The night ended with people asking questions well into the night.

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