CSU faculty and staff discuss hate speech, First Amendment

Yixuan Xie

Faculty and staff have had to ask themselves when hate speech crosses the line into intimidation and threats and how they should respond to controversial speech and behaviors in class.

Two weeks after violent protests at Colorado State University, faculty and staff were provided resources, information and the best practices to help answer these questions. The second session of the First Amendment Conversation Series was held in the Lory Student Center on Wednesday, Feb. 14. 

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Tom Milligan, one of the panelists and vice president for External Relations, talked about the purpose of having this conversation.

“The issues surrounding the First Amendment, speakers, protests and counter-protests are very prominent in higher education,” Milligan said. “We feel it is important to have an open and candid dialogue about how do we, as an institution, deal with this effectively, maintaining both our commitment to diversity and our principle of community, but also maintaining public safety as well as a commitment to the First Amendment.”

Facilitation for this conversation was provided by Kalie McMonagle, program coordinator of the Center for Public Deliberation. She did a brief survey among faculty and staff who attended the conversation before the panel discussion.

During the session, there were questions that could be answered by the 53 people in attendance via clicker. Of those in attendance, 81 percent witnessed an issue related to freedom of speech on the plaza or in public places and 57 percent witnessed free speech issues in guest lectures or campus events

For the last question – which asked if they feel knowledgeable about how the First Amendment applies to universities – only 7 percent strongly agreed and 46 percent of attendees somewhat agreed.

The panel presentation was led by Jason Johnson, Jannine Mohr and Ria Vigil, along with Tom Milligan. There was a question and answer session following each part of the panel. 

The first part introduced different categories of speech including unprotected speech, fighting words and hate speech.

During the question and answer session, Andrea Duffy, director of international studies, asked if dealing with speech in class and speech on campus is different and how to respond to an incident such that a student came to her class wearing a white power hat.

“The classroom is not the same thing as a free speech zone,” Milligan said. “It gets a little tricky on what you wear and those things. We’re very careful in how we fought back legislation … about the notion of what is free speech and what is the classroom. The classroom is run by faulty and that is what we believe.”

Duffy said she wants to make sure her students understand that she is not advocating a certain position that other students could find defensive.

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“In an incident like that, I want to make sure that students who could feel marginalized by a hat like that will not think that I was supporting or I thought it was ok,” Duffy said. “More broadly, I want to have a positive and inclusive atmosphere in my classes and on campus in general.”

 

The second part discussed how location such as traditional public forum, designated public forum and non-public forum influences people’s right to express themselves.  

Johnson, from CSU Office of the General Counsel, talked about differences between these. While the Plaza is treated as a public forum and open to expression, sidewalk between the dining hall and residence hall, what some people consider as a traditional public forum, is actually a non-public area.

“It is like you going to the kitchen and walking back and forth to your bedroom,” Johnson said.

Last, the conversations centered around employee speech and academic freedom. 

Johnson brought up an example of when a professor uses some challenging or provocative words when talking about the power of language. 

“It is fair game and absolutely germane to your class although students may say, ‘I don’t like it’ or feel (offended),” Johnson said.

Jannine Mohr and Tom Milligan talk about employee speech and the First Amendment to faculty and staff on Feb. 14 at Lory Student Center (Yixuan Xie | Collegian)

After the conversation, Mohr talked about what she hopes people gain from this conversation.

“We’ve seen questions around the First Amendment have been really big on college campuses and across the country,” Mohr said. “People have a lot of questions and uncertainly about how the First Amendment applies. So we want to get front of the issue and talk about it, hopefully giving people a baseline sort of knowledge and empowering them to use it across campus.”

Bruce Hallmark, director of development of Morgan Library, said he is most concerned about suppression ideas on campus.

“People start saying that this is a certain kind of speech and I don’t like (it),” Hallmark said. “But that’s what college is about, coming to hear things may be contradicting to what you believe.”

Collegian reporter Yixuan Xie can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @YixuanXie1