University Senate discusses free speech at annual plenary


Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

The University Senate convened on Wednesday to hold its annual plenary session focused on “Free Speech in the Modern University.”

By Maureen Hartwell, Staff Writer

In a week filled with protests and demonstrations in the wake of Michael Rosfeld’s acquittal, the University Senate convened to hold its annual plenary session focused on “Free Speech in the Modern University.”

Chris Bonneau, the president of the University Senate, said the plenary session is an annual gathering of University faculty and staff to discuss a topic of mutual interest. Each year, the University Senate selects a new, pertinent issue on campus.

This year’s plenary session, held from noon to 3 p.m. on Wednesday, hosted Sigal Ben-Porath from the University of Pennsylvania as the keynote speaker. As a professor of education, political science and philosophy, Ben-Porath discussed the content of her book “Free Speech on Campus.”

“Professor Ben-Porath and her keynote have given us some things to think about,” Bonneau said. “Are our policies effective? What can we do better to promote an atmosphere of free speech and inclusivity?”

Ben-Porath said although universities globally have become increasingly diverse, a significant portion of students maintain stagnant political ideologies.

“Students are coming to campus very often ideologically homogeneous, having not encountered diversity,” Ben-Porath said.

She went on to say that this is partially a result of public schools failing to integrate racially and ethnically diverse populations and ideals. And, referencing the “Bong hits 4 Jesus” court case in which a teenager was suspended from Juneau-Douglas High School for allegedly promoting drug use on his high school’s campus, Ben-Porath said educators increasingly have the power to obstruct or censor students’ speech if they find it disruptive.

She also described how by the time many of these students get to their first year of college, they lack the experience necessary to engage in free speech. She made a distinction between two types of risks that coincide with freedom of speech: intellectual risks and dignitary risks.

Intellectual risks, Ben-Porath said, challenge preconceived notions but do not encourage hateful or unproductive speech.

“Intellectual risk-taking is and should be welcome on college campuses,” Ben-Porath said. “We should push for more of that, because intellectual safety undermines the mission of a lot of universities.”

On the other hand, dignitary risks, which Ben-Porath cautioned against, create concern or elicit a strong, negative response campuswide — something that does not advance any conversation.

“Dignitary safety is an essential feature of an open and inclusive campus,” Ben-Porath said.

As her keynote wrapped up, Ben-Porath noted some specific ways faculty and administration members can facilitate productive free speech on campus, such as acknowledging bigoted and biased statements and making the discussion of such statements public. She said instructors who do not address such comments effectively endorse the statement made by the student.

She also said that civility, despite popular opinion, does not create an inclusive context, because it requires us to ignore differences in power.

“Civility calls on me to wear a suit and stand here in a pleasant way and I can say terrible things,” Ben-Porath said. “It allows me to do more than an inclusive climate should permit.”

When Ben-Porath finished her keynote, the program transitioned to a panel of three Pitt faculty and administrative members to respond. Vice Provost and Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner spoke first, noting that it’s not enough for students to base freedom of speech on the First Amendment.

“We don’t want to create a system in which people operate under some decorum,” Bonner said.

Next, professor Kristin Kanthak from the political science department spoke in response to the keynote, highlighting the power dynamics on a college campus. Kanthak agreed with Ben-Porath’s comment on civility, noting that those in power determine what is and is not civil.

“Each of us in this room can use our power not to stifle free speech, but to create an environment where those who are paying the highest price for free speech also feel included,” Kanthak said. “Those of us who are in positions of power need to mitigate the costs they are paying.”

Kanthak extended the conversation into a discussion of race, noting that white people are more uncomfortable talking about race, compared to people of color. As such, she said race doesn’t get discussed as frequently as it should because white people get to decide when we discuss race.

“Some of us are sitting here in our ivory tower and when we hear offensive things, it doesn’t bother us,” Kanthak said.

Jules Lobel from the School of Law continued the discussion of civility’s shortcomings in facilitating free speech. Using anti-war movements of the 1970s as an example, Lobel said rights such as free speech can’t always be protected in a civil manner.

“Civility doesn’t recognize that sometimes confrontation and inflammatory speech are the most effective ways of getting points across,” Lobel said.

Lobel also said even if he disagrees with a student from a factual standpoint, he will allow them to voice their thoughts. To Lobel, students with different ideas should challenge their professor when necessary.

Extending this sentiment outside the classroom, Lobel said, “It’s not only our obligation to create a community where speakers are free to speak, but also where members who have been harmed throughout the community’s history feel included.”

After the panel’s initial comments, audience members asked Ben-Porath and the three panel members questions. Chancellor Patrick Gallagher posed the first audience question, asking how to prepare students coming from public schools to engage in free speech on campus.

“It’s not enough to declare, ‘This campus is very open, we accept all opinions, good luck,’” Ben-Porath said in response. “We have to be both intentional and direct in the education we offer our students.”

She instead proposed that universities talk directly about free speech to their students and advertise student action groups on campus. Ben-Porath also said censorship of certain campus groups is not an effective solution.

“Once censorship becomes permissible, the next person who will be censored is the person I support,” Ben-Porath said. “People with minority opinions and identities are the first, if not the second, on the chopping block.”

Ben-Porath said students need the opportunity to speak freely in order to hear and understand one another.

“The goal of speech on a college campus is the generation of a conversation and dialogue,” Ben-Porath said. “And we ought to make sure someone is listening.”