At the Newseum Institute’s “Free Speech on Campus” conference, college students debated the weight of words.
By Genevieve Kotz
When Nada Merghani expressed that words can be violent, Merghani did not expect the statement to elicit such an ongoing conversation.
Merghani was one of the students at the “Free Speech on Campus” conference held by the Newseum Institute and the Knight Foundation on Saturday, April 2. The students talked about the idea of trigger warnings, censorship at colleges, student media and the coddled college mind.
As the students from across the country engaged in discussion, a British journalist raised an important question.
“Does everybody in the room really agree that words can be violent in this way?” Ella Whelan, a staff writer at Spiked Magazine, asked. Spiked, an online U.K.-based publication, has published articles such as “We must have the freedom to hate” and “Rape culture? There’s no such thing.”
And while the discussion never presented an absolute answer, it was a topic that showed how today’s generation is addressing a multitude of issues around free speech.
Gene Policinski, the COO of the Newseum Institute, said times have changed since he was a student during an era entrenched in the Kent State shooting and the civil rights movement.
“I think how we parse the impact of words has changed because of technology and we have to recognize that as well,” Policinski said.
Curating a conference
Policinski and Jeffrey Herbst, the President and CEO of the Newseum, created the conference as part of an ongoing project by the Newseum Institute and the Knight Foundation looking at the debate over free speech on campus.
The Newseum Institute and the Knight Foundation also sponsored a Gallup survey on campus free expression, which was released on April 4. The results concluded that students are actually more positive about the First Amendment than U.S. adults.
Policinski said he and Herbst had noticed the changing climate on college campuses and wanted to foster a conversation from the college perspective. They did not want to exclude people who would presume their voices were not welcome, Policinski said, as they were conscious the Newseum is an organization that supports free speech. To do so, they used a format typical among journalists and federal judges to create an intellectual space for conversation, with several presentations followed by open discussion. About 40 students joined several administrators, faculty and free speech activists at the event.
Maryam Tehranie, a 22-year old studying public relations at the University of South Carolina, said diversity is critical with all that is happening in our country.
“It’s also more important than ever to learn how to talk and discuss with people that don’t have the same opinions with you,” Tehranie said.
The students addressed issues ranging from free speech zones on campuses to the role of the college newspaper. Throughout these conversations, the topic of sensitivity toward other cultures and people of marginalized backgrounds became part of the dialogue.
“Words matter and you can kick someone out of the conversation forever if you use the wrong word,” Aidan Martinez, a student at Wesleyan University, said during the forum.
During the discussion, students debated the impact words can have. A conversation arose in which one student asked if the right of transgender people to be called by their correct pronouns was more important than the right of an individual not to use those pronouns.
Merghani said for transgender people, being misidentified was more than being offended. It was a delegitimization of their entire existence.
“There’s a difference between being offended and not being treated like a human being,” Merghani said.
A coddled campus?
The conference also addressed other issues surrounding free speech, like trigger warnings and safe spaces.
Fanta Aw, a sociologist and assistant vice president of campus life at American University, said terms like trigger warnings and safe spaces are taken from psychology dealing with trauma.
“How do we create that kind of environment that promotes full learning and also recognize that with learning comes tremendous discomfort?” Aw asked.
Trigger warnings may come from a good place, but there is no research proving they work, Greg Lukianoff, the president and CEO of FIRE, said. FIRE is a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the rights of the individual in higher education, according to its website.
“I think we’re teaching intellectual habits that go along with anxiety and depression,” Lukianoff said during an interview at the conference.
Aw said most of her students don’t understand free speech.
David Hudson, who spoke with Aw in a presentation on campus speech, said it is necessary to narrowly define bullying in terms of free speech to avoid suppressing the free speech of others. As the Newseum Institute’s ombudsman for the First Amendment, Hudson said there’s a difference between offensive speech and speech that is a direct assault on someone’s very being.
“With speech comes responsibility and this is something that we need to help our students understand,” Aw said.
Spiked Magazine takes a stand
As believers in absolute speech, the writers of Spiked Magazine voiced their concern over the issue of equating certain words with violence.
“If we believe in freedom of speech, we can’t believe that words are inherently violent,” Tom Slater of Spiked Magazine said.
Spiked Magazine did a survey of 115 U.K. universities and found 90 percent were hostile to free speech policies in some way or another, either through policy blocking certain speech or through actions like banning events, according to Whelan.
In the U.K, there is no amendment protecting freedom of expression and hate speech laws have put people in jail for tweeting, Whelan said. This stems, she said, from a culture of victimhood that reinforces the idea that words can hurt. As a woman, she said she finds the idea of people telling her what will offend her patronizing.
“You can’t choose if you hurt when someone beats you up,” Whelan said. “But you can choose if words hurt you.”
But among students at the event, the idea that words can hurt still held a powerful place. Tehranie said she doesn’t necessarily believe that words can be violent, but they can cause some type of harm.
“Words cut deep,” Tehranie said. “Punching someone isn’t the only way to hurt them.”