University professors, campus leaders and Emory students discussed free speech and academic freedom at a conference hosted by Emory Campus Life at the Emory Conference Center from March 21 to 23. About 125 people attended the event.
The conference consisted of multiple panels and lectures, which focused on topics including safe spaces, sexual harassment and academic freedom of expression on college campuses.
Northwestern Provost Jonathan Holloway, who served as a speaker in the first panel of the conference, expressed mixed feelings about safe spaces on campuses.
“I do not think the classroom should be a safe space,” Holloway said. “But I do think that there should be places on campus where people can go where their existence is not challenged.”
In 2015, Holloway, former dean of Yale College (Conn.), found himself in charge of addressing a dispute surrounding freedom of expression in Halloween costumes on Yale’s campus. Holloway said he believed that students should not wear costumes that could be considered culturally insensitive, although he encouraged respectful discourse if students deemed it necessary.
Zach Raetzman (19B), who serves on the University Senate’s Committee for Open Expression, attended the event both as an audience member and a panelist. Raetzman emphasized the need for changing the way people talk about safe spaces.
“People often say that we need to have safe spaces everywhere or we can’t have safe spaces anywhere,” Raetzman said. “I think that there needs to be a long discussion as to what barriers are appropriate at what times and in what places to participate in certain circles.”
Keynote speaker and Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory Deborah Lipstadt argued for a free exchange of ideas in order to promote the idea of a university as an environment for academic discourse.
Lipstadt explained that when universities reject speakers who make some of their students uncomfortable, they are failing to “understand what a university’s true meaning is.”
Nancy Leong, panelist and professor of law at the University of Denver, discussed sexual harassment as an issue regarding freedom of speech, rather than an issue solely of discrimination or equality. Leong explained that victims of sexual harassment may face restricted freedom of speech from pressures to remain silent.
“We need to recognize that there are a range of speech interests at stake here,” Leong said. “I think that speech interests related to victims of sexual harassment are sometimes under-discussed, but due process concerns also implicate other speech interests.”
President and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education Greg Lukianoff discussed the need to teach others about their free speech rights, especially during freshman orientation.
“We can’t condemn students for not appreciating freedom of speech, when no one has explained it to them,” Lukianoff said.
Riley Gulbronson (19C) attended the event to learn how professionals at other universities handle incidents in which students’ free speech is at risk.
“I think [we need to make] everyone aware of ‘these are your rights, this is what the government classifies as hate speech,’” Gulbronson said.