Panelists at law school’s free speech symposium share how they handled First Amendment controversies, conflicts

The symposium was held so that people working and learning at colleges can learn from one another’s experiences, Lyrissa Lidsky, dean of the MU School of Law, said.
The First Amendment symposium on Oct. 27, 2017.

The MU School of Law hosted a symposium regarding the First Amendment on college campuses and methods for resolving conflicts centered around free speech. The event, titled “The First Amendment on Campus: Identifying Principles for Best Practices for Managing and Resolving Conflict,” was held Friday morning in Hulston Hall.

Law professor Robert Jerry said the law school decided to host the symposium after realizing much of the community at MU, as well as other universities, didn’t have a proper understanding of the First Amendment.

“Free exchange of controversial or sensitive ideas is fundamental to the academic mission to our universities,” Jerry said. “However, as no one in this room needs to be reminded, events on our nation’s campuses, events which have occurred with increasing frequency since 2015, vividly demonstrate that operationalizing the principle of free expression in a university community presents enormous challenges.”

One part of the symposium was a panel led by four panelists from three different universities, who have all worked with their respective communities on issues regarding free speech and expression.

The panelists used protests at MU, Middlebury College and Auburn University as case studies for discussing the issue of free speech on college campuses.

Taffye Benson Clayton, vice president and associate provost for inclusion and diversity, and Julie Huff, director of strategic initiatives and communications for the provost’s office, both work at Auburn University in eastern Alabama.

Last April, student groups organized to have white nationalist Richard Spencer speak at the Auburn campus. Clayton and Huff said there was a lot of backlash from other students, including protests and interruptions of Spencer’s speech.

Originally, administration at Auburn University tried to prevent Spencer from coming to campus. However, a federal judge declared the school had to allow the event on First Amendment grounds.

Auburn University sent out four separate statements to students regarding Spencer and the White Student Union group that invited him on campus. In one, it expressed it did not agree with Spencer’s beliefs but would still allow him to speak.

“We strongly deplore his views, which run counter to those of this institution,” the statement said. “While his event isn’t affiliated with the university, Auburn supports the constitutional right to free speech.”

At the event itself, there were protests from students and even a small fight, Clayton said.

Afterward, Auburn University sent out a campus climate survey to the student body that asked about how welcome students felt on campus. Huff said the survey showed a lot of students don’t feel safe or accepted at the university.

Since the incident was only about five months ago, Clayton said there is still a lot to learn about free speech and expression at a public university like Auburn.

Baishakhi Banerjee Taylor, dean of students at Middlebury College in Vermont, said Middlebury saw a similar situation regarding a public speaker who came to campus.

Last March, author and political scientist Charles Murray was scheduled to speak at the college after he was invited by the American Enterprise Institute Club, of which he is a fellow.

During the event, a crowd of more than 400 filled the auditorium in which Murray was speaking to protest the event, according to the Middlebury website.

The website states that protesters disrupted the event with “20 minutes of loud chanting,” causing Murray and Middlebury College professor Allison Stanger, who was going to interview Murray, to move to a separate room, where they would record the interview and broadcast it live.

Afterward, as Murray and Stanger were walking out, Taylor said they were surrounded by people, including some wearing ski masks. Taylor said Stanger was hit, experienced whiplash and later suffered from a concussion.

The school took disciplinary action against 74 students for their involvement in the incident.

Taylor said that because this situation was also fairly recent, much like the one at Auburn, the college is still reflecting on what happened and how to handle a similar situation in the future.

“We still have a lot of reflecting on where we go from here; we have a lot of work,” she said.

She also said administration needs to communicate more with the student body, especially those who feel discriminated against.

“We really need to listen to our students,” she said. “[Middlebury is] not a really diverse campus so we really need to listen to our students who are being marginalized.”

Graduate student Evonnia Woods was a student at MU when the 2015 protests took place. In 2016, she served as the graduate student representative on the Chancellor’s and Faculty Council’s Ad Hoc Joint Committee on Protests, Public Spaces, Free Speech and the Press.

She said she didn’t fully understand much of what the First Amendment entailed and all of its implications when she was first called in to be a member of the committee.

However, as she spent more time working with the committee and learning more about what free speech and expression means, she realized just how complicated it can be.

Woods also said she realized much of how the First Amendment plays a role at a public university is through setting guidelines for what constitutes as free speech.

There had already been guidelines in place, Woods said, and the protests in 2015 were not the first that MU has seen. There had also been campus-wide protests in the 1980s that already had guidelines written up for them.

But what had already been in place was vague and unclear, Woods said. MU needed to specify much of these guidelines, such as what constitutes a “traditional public forum” and allow members of the press and photographers to cover protests.

Having this kind of understanding about the university’s regulations is necessary for protests to remain peaceful and calm because the common student may not know the legal implications of civil disobedience, Woods said.

After the wording was adjusted and made clearer, Woods said there was still work to be done within the university, such as fostering respect among students and faculty.

After each panelist shared what happened at their own colleges, they explained how having this kind of experience can help them, along with other universities, learn about free speech and the First Amendment, along with how to handle any protests on campus.

Clayton and Taylor said both of their colleges are better prepared for new situations and issues that may arise regarding free speech.

Clayton said that even with taking all precautionary measures that she knew of, it still was surprising.

“There’s still a very fresh sense of the experience itself and hopefully a greater degree of comfort and collectiveness of this being the new normal,” she said.

Lyrissa Lidsky, dean of the MU School of Law, said the experiences from the panel were extraordinary in sharing with others how to address free speech controversies and conflicts on a college campus.

“The purpose of this symposium is so that we can learn from each other’s experiences and these really help us to foster civil discourse going forward,” Lidsky said. “We’re so fortunate to have such a wide range of experiences on our campus so that we can learn from each other.”

Edited by Olivia Garrett |

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