From football players taking a knee during the national anthem to debates over allowing controversial speakers on campuses to the question about rights of immigrant activists, interpretations of the First Amendment right to free speech are front-and-center in many of our conversations today.
Issues being discussed across the United States seek to answer if a concern for safety trumps free speech, or if universities should penalize students that shout over and disrupt speakers whose views are different from their own.
The proliferation of so-called “fake news” has led many to wonder what information sources can be trusted.
For the next several months, as the University of Michigan explores through various events issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion on campus, the Office of Academic Innovation will present a teach-out series that focuses on free speech on college campuses, in journalism and in sports.
Leaders of the three-part series include U-M President Mark Schlissel; faculty from the Law School, School of Education, School of Information, School of Kinesiology and College of Literature, Science, and the Arts at U-M; faculty from American University and Michigan State University; the executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation; U-M students; and members of the media, including a journalist participating in the Knight-Wallace Fellowship program at U-M.
“Our society’s greatest challenges tend to play themselves out in very intense ways on university campuses. And as a public institution, I think we have to be open to these challenges to make sure discourse on campus represents a broad variety of viewpoints and perspectives, and that we make our challenges visible to the public,” Schlissel said in an interview that will be part of the first teach-out on “Free Speech on Campus.”
“Free speech is a particularly important value at a university, not just a public university, but all universities. It’s the way we learn and grow and improve our understanding.”
Teach-outs are free, short learning opportunities that allow people across the world to engage with experts on various topics of national and international interest. They are modeled after the teach-ins of the 1960s, started at U-M, which physically brought people to campus for a short-term, intensive educational experience on a timely topic.
Delivered on the Coursera online platform, teach-outs take advantage of current technology to engage learners. Participants can enroll and move through the learning opportunities at their own pace for the few weeks they are posted online.
The free speech teach-outs are part of a larger “2018 Speech and Inclusion: Recognizing Conflict and Building Tools for Engagement” series sponsored by the Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion and several other campus units.
Events throughout the winter semester invite students, faculty and staff to “openly discuss, listen, and engage with differing views on free speech and to advocate for voices that have historically been silenced—important issues that continue to challenge both our campus and the nation,” according to the DEI website.
The idea that opinions, however unpopular, should be heard is what student Jesse Arm said prompted student groups to bring controversial author Charles Murray to campus in the fall.
In the late 1990s, Murray wrote a book called the “Bell Curve” that claimed that the normal distribution of IQ showed differences in intelligence based on race and class. Murray’s appearance on campus in October to share his latest book “Coming Apart: The State of White America,” was met with protests. Students attempted to shut down the event by shouting down the speaker.
“We hoped to bring in people who may not agree with Dr. Murray, may not see eye-to-eye with him,” for an exchange of ideas, said Arm, chairperson of the American Enterprise Institute’s Michigan Executive Council. “We believe that forwards intellectual diversity. We believe that forwards the competition of ideas on our campus.”
The news recently reported that a Princeton University professor canceled a free speech course following intense criticism over his use of a racial slur in class as an illustration of words that incite negative feelings and reaction.
Some of U-M’s free-speech-on-campus discussion will center around what are called trigger warnings—advance notices to students that subject matter in classes could get uncomfortable and cause unpleasant responses.
“They emerged to really help people not trigger anxiety, loss of concentration or other more severe reactions,” said Vasti Torres, professor in the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the School of Education. “The way they are taken today is to assume that trigger warnings are about restricting when someone doesn’t believe what you believe.”
Knowing what to believe with the barrage of information coming at us through traditional and nontraditional news sources is behind a second teach-out that will focus on “Free Speech in Journalism.”
As public trust in news organizations reaches historic lows, in part due to accusations of “fake news” by top leaders, and an increase in false or misleading information masquerading as news, many are asking what is the role of journalism in a free society?
In her video segment, HuffPost editor-in-chief Lydia Polgreen said the discussion often focuses on journalism and journalists but free speech is bigger than one institution.
“The First Amendment is first because it applies to all of us and it’s really the bedrock of our democracy and our identity as Americans,” Polgreen said.
“The true menace of restrictions of speech is less and less the government and more and more big and powerful companies,” she said, explaining that most people today do not seek information from newspapers but from Facebook, Twitter and various websites backed by companies that limit, control and sometimes distort the available information.
As top officials accuse even mainstream press of proliferating fake news, Chuck Lewis, professor at the School of Communication at American University, said such assaults on journalism and a free press are not new. In the past, he said, the subjects of news stories have faced prosecution, broadcast operations have been threatened with license revocation and journalists have even been murdered for their reporting.
“There have been a number of incidences where the press has reported about uses and abuses of power that has enraged and offended and angered the powers that be, whichever party is in control,” Lewis said, citing the Pentagon Papers and Watergate as chief examples. “Even though we have this amendment, that’s always been subject to interpretation and the subjectivity of individual political actors. That’s why this amendment is so crucial.”
The third teach-out on “Free Speech in Sports” will ask if athletic events are appropriate venues for social and political activism, and the role of players and various stakeholders with respect to free speech during those activities.
U-M has an ongoing series of teach-outs on topics such as sleep, opioid use, fake news, and privacy and reputation in a digital age.