Free speech discussions on-campus

The Center for Constitutional Studies hosted speakers from across the country who spoke on the importance of free speech on college campuses. Photo by Matthew Drachman.

Speakers came together on campus to convene on the importance of free speech on college campuses.

Over the course of three sessions, the Center for Constitutional Studies hosted speakers from across the country who spoke on March 24, to students on a variety of topics. Including the history of free speech on campuses, the importance of it on modern campuses, and what to do if speech is silenced.

The first session featured Dr. Michael Jirkik, scholar from Harvard University, Dr. Mary Beth Brown, Rare Book Librarian at the American Heritage Center for the University of Wyoming, and Jasmin Howard, who is a fifth-year doctoral candidate studying U.S., African, and African American history at the University of Michigan.

“Violence is an important part of my project,” Howard began as she answered a question regarding the use of violence as a tool to silence speech. “Violence is a constant, and violence also involves loss of opportunities and resources.”

Howard spoke on the history of student activism for social justice, along with the various tactics that were used by students to make their voices heard in situations that brought hatred and violence towards them. Jirkik spoke to the mass history of campus speech in regards to abolition during the lead-up to the Civil War.

The second session featured two speakers, Dr. Lora Burnett, who was formerly a history professor at Collin College, was fired for her comments she made on Twitter against Mike Pence. She later won a settlement from the school for violating her first amendment.

“For me, getting this clear victory, having my first amendment rights vindicated and notching a win, not just for me but for all professors at public colleges, was really important,” Burnett is quoted saying to the Dallas Observer.

Burnett, during her talk, walks listeners through her story of being censored and punished by her former employer, Collin College, and the concepts that surrounded the first amendment. She warns of those who don’t quite understand the first amendment and what it means.

“A bunch of private citizens on Twitter demanding that I be fired for saying that Mike Pence has a demon mouth, they aren’t doing anything to free speech in higher education,” Burnett states. “That kind of public outcry… that’s people’s contribution to public discourse.”

She went on to say, “They absolutely have the right to be out there in the public square demanding that all liberal professors be fired. That’s their right.” 

Burnett later warns about what to be concerned about in regard to free speech on campus. “It’s not our fellow citizens’ free speech about free speech that should concern us, it’s what our government is doing; but not really our government, our governments, plural,” She later says that governments run by religious conservatives are the ones students should be concerned about.

“What is happening right now is that some governments in some states where religious conservatives, or states rights champions are in positions of power, are quite literally and deliberately restricting and pinging upon… the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States,” Burnett said. “It’s happening in Texas, it’s not happening in California. It’s not happening in New York, it’s not happening in Illinois, it’s happening in Florida, it’s not happening in Connecticut, it’s not happening in Massachusetts. We have to talk about that.”

Burnett was followed by David M. Rabban, who is a professor of law and legal history at the University of Texas at Austin. Rabban spoke to the case law that surrounded free speech.

“I am going to compress some highlights into fifteen minutes, I should start out by saying the law is a mess,” Rabban opened. “A major problem that [causes confusion] is that many cases have recognized academic freedom as a first amendment right, but very few of these decisions have elaborated what academic freedom means as a first amendment right.”

Rabbam would later go into detail about how certain topics would relate to how excursion zones have been made for certain aspects of the first amendment and argues that academic freedom should be given special protection. 

The final speaker was Andrew O’Shaughnessy, who spoke about Thomas Jefferson, Free Speech, and how it pertained to the University of Virginia.

For more information about upcoming events with the Center for Constitutional Studies, visit their website.

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