Panelists discuss difference between hate, free speech at second First Amendment Series

Audrey Weiss

A man talks into a microphone
General Counsel Jason Johnson speaks during the First Amendment Series March 1, 2018. Regarding First Amendment rights of the University, Johnson said, “We have content neutral, time, place and manner restrictions that we can apply.” (Field Peterson | Collegian)

Several bias-motivated incidents have occurred during the 2017-2018 academic year, calling into question where the line between acts of hate and free speech is drawn.

Panelists gathered to discuss the difference between protected First Amendment rights and hate speech on campus Thursday at the second installment of the First Amendment series in the Lory Student Center at Colorado State University.

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The Multicultural Staff and Faculty Network, the Office of the President, the Vice President for Diversity and the Center for Public deliberation hosted the series. Panelists included Senior Associate Legal Counsel Jannine Mohr, General Counsel Jason Johnson, Director of Diversity Education and Training Ria Vigil, and Vice President of External Relations Tom Milligan.

“It’s an integral part of who we are as a nation, a university, (and) how we think of ourselves as a nation,” said Kalie McMonagle, the program coordinator for the Center for Public Deliberation. “There have been things happening lately … that have made us feel a little bit squishy in our relationship with the First Amendment.”

McMonagle said the objective of the event was to identify where different First Amendment issues were.

“Universities by their very nature are committed and must be the places where ideas come and ideas flourish and that we share thoughts,” Milligan said. “I think it is important that we value that.”

Milligan said that being in a university setting allows for more radicalized views to manifest.

Johnson agreed, saying that “peaceable assembly” is often forgotten, yet the First Amendment covers freedom of press, speech, religion and peaceable assembly.

Johnson also said people only like the First Amendment when they support the ideas being expressed.

“We all want to have the ability to say what we want to say, and the First Amendment protects things even that may be vulgar, disagreeable, and could be offensive,” Johnson said.

“We all want to have the ability to say what we want to say and the first amendment protects things even that may be vulgar, disagreeable, and could be offensive,” – Jason Johnson, General Counsel

Mohr clarified the misconception that freedom of speech only applies to individuals is; it actually covers government and individuals acting in a governmental capacity.

The First Amendment takes precedent over federal statutes, state constitutions, state statuses and regulations, and university policy, Mohr said.

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The definition of free speech is very broad. Mohr said it could be an act of expression, rather than just speech. This covers anything from the written word, to clothing, to the desire not to speak.

Johnson defined obscenity, defamation, incitement, fighting words, threats and intimidation as speech not protected by the First Amendment.

However, panelists agreed these terms are also confusing in the way that they are classified.

“Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should do it,” Johnson said.

Johnson said that the First Amendment does not protect speaking in private places, so free speech is confined to the public forum.

In the non-public forum, areas are open by the selection of those attending, and are thus selective to individual speakers, Johnson said.

With these different forums and standards, Vigil said that the First Amendment is not meant to silence voices, but to act as a guide and a resource.

Vigil stressed that even with occurrences on campus, the University has the opportunity to respond in many different ways.

“We get to say, as an institution, what community we want to be,” Vigil said.

Milligan agreed, saying that with these opportunities, faculty runs the classroom and are responsible for setting parameters for this content.

“We’re not really into the ‘thou shall not say this’,” Milligan said.

The next part in the series will be March 20 from 3-5 p.m. in the LSC Ballroom. At that part, panelists will address tools and procedures to utilize when confusion regarding the First Amendment is introduced.

Collegian reporter Audrey Weiss can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @Audkward.