Free speech panel on FIRE

The Free Speech Panel discussed safe spaces, hate speech, bullying, trigger words, and more during Wednesday's event. From left to right: Robert Shibley, Executive Director of FIRE; Professor Clay Calvert, Director of the Brechner First Amendment Project; and Professor Lyrissa Lidsky, UF Levin College of Law. Photo by Kéran Billaud.

by Kéran Billaud

This year, the University of Florida is one of only two universities in the state that has a “green light” rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

“Green light institutions are those colleges and universities whose policies nominally protect free speech,” according to FIRE’s nationwide speech code ratings.

While Gators can let out a slight sigh of relief, many peers in other institutions face barriers to free speech on a regular basis.  The Federalist Society at UF Law hosted a panel this past Wednesday to discuss the challenges colleges face in both social and classroom settings.

The panel included Robert Shibley, Executive Director of FIRE; Professor Clay Calvert, Director of the Brechner First Amendment Project; and Professor Lyrissa Lidsky, UF Levin College of Law.  Together, they discussed how the divided nomenclature of safe spaces, trigger warnings and speech zones muddle standards of free speech on campuses.

The Federalist Society promotes the FIRE Free Speech Panel by tabling, offering free annotated copies of the U.S. Constitution. The panel discussed the importance of free speech on campuses. Photo by Kéran Billaud.
The Federalist Society promotes the FIRE Free Speech Panel by tabling, offering free annotated copies of the U.S. Constitution. The panel discussed the importance of free speech on campuses. Photo by Kéran Billaud.

Challenges today?

Safe spaces might appeal to students who need to feel protected to organize and express themselves, but they can also have a negative effect on free speech.

Safe spaces have accelerated hugely these past few years,” Shibley noted.

Last Halloween at Yale, students protested an email disagreeing with a message asking students to be thoughtful about the cultural implications of their Halloween costumes. They called for the author and her husband’s resignation in their protest.

Protest is understandable, and “the student was clearly emotionally distraught,” Professor Lidsky stated. “But trying to shut that speaker down entirely… because it makes you feel unsafe in some way is disturbing.” Defining safe spaces to protect students in reasonable situations while protecting the free speech of opposition is just one hurdle.

*Before continuing this article, the author must issue a trigger warning. On how many things, that cannot be determined. That seems to be the growing question in classroom atmospheres. How often and for what should trigger warnings be issued?

“You can’t expect all faculty to know what constitutes a trigger warning,” Shibley said.

There are more obvious ones like sexual assault, and then you have small holes. “It’s a thing. Some people have a phobia of small holes,” Shibley continued.

He proposed that one can approach teaching from a psychological understanding of what is appropriate in a classroom. It is a serious issue for students who have post traumatic stress disorder, phobias, or a condition that renders one completely vulnerable in the moment.

The Federalist Society was hard to miss today, as they provided a giant beach ball for students to write thoughts down on. Photo by Kéran Billaud.
The Federalist Society was hard to miss today, as they provided a giant beach ball for students to write thoughts down on. Photo by Kéran Billaud.

In discussing the Mapplethorpe obscenity case in Media Law at UF, Professor Calvert explained he does not show the photos of the artwork that, to some, are offensive.  In discussing cases that specifically deal with swear words, such as Cohen v. California, it makes more sense since the whole point of the case is freedom to express opposition to the Vietnam War with a jacket that read, “F*** THE DRAFT. STOP THE WAR.”

Is there a general solution?

The challenge is reaching one.

Calvert said the problem starts early in schooling when children are taught that hurting the feelings of others is bad. They grow up thinking that it is wrong to express strong opposing thoughts, when it should be appreciation for diverse opinion that is enforced.

The Tyler Clementi cyberbullying case out of Rutgers is an example of where the government might mishandle the fallout from public outcry, according to Lidsky.  You have a case here where a student’s privacy has been violated through illegal live recording and sharing of a sexual act with another person, along with intentional infliction of emotional distress.  These are already punishable grounds. Clementi committed suicide after facing the emotional distress that followed.

Discussion over anti-bullying legislation followed shortly after the case. Lidsky, however, pointed out that rushing to pass a bill in the wake of an event like this may result in “broad and pernicious” law, and “you don’t always need new laws.”

In college academia, Lidsky proposed that colleges keep a diverse faculty. In doing so, you allow multiple voices to be heard. The key objective for now should be to promote both freedom and tolerance at all levels of education.

“You have to create a campus culture where ideological diversity of viewpoints is protected,” Lidsky concluded.

About Kéran Billaud 14 Articles
Kéran Billaud is a J.D. student at the University of Florida Levin College of Law (2L). He has taught labs at the CJC and is a past sole instructor of Mass Media & You. From 2010 to 2015, he worked in print, radio, TV and online multimedia news for organizations such as NPR/PBS/NBC/CBS affiliates, and foreign media in Zambia, Africa. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communications with a double minor in English lit/creative writing and French from Emory & Henry College and a professional master’s degree in telecommunications from the University of Florida. On the side, he has enjoyed 14 years of serious competition in endurance races up through the marathon and in martial arts tournaments, water sports and mountain climbing.