The debate on Free Speech continues

April 25, 2018

After a month of forums centered around topics surrounding freedom of speech, diversity

and inclusion, UT held a follow-up roundtable discussion in response to students’ First

Amendment concerns after the March 22 townhall, said Sammy Spann, dean of students.


Administrators including Spann, Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion Willie

McKether and Vice President for Student Affairs Philip Cockrell asked students how to best

handle “uncomfortable” speech and topics.


“We need to be exposed to different topics,” said Randy Thomas, third-year

environmental science major. “In most classes, I’m just recollecting information I’m taught; I

want to come to my own conclusion.”


Students should be exposed to this information in the classroom, at discussions like the

forums seen in April and at events around campus, Thomas said.


Specifically, Thomas wants to see a combination of events that allow students to debate,

express themselves and have more intimate discussions with administrators.


The College Democrats’ decision to put up a banner in March depicting President Donald

Trump with a Ku Klux Klan hood that said, “Join the College Democrats” sparked the month-

long discussion about the First Amendment on campus.


In reaction to the banner, President Sharon Gaber sent a letter to the UT community

saying she was disappointed in the banner, but explained the decision to leave the banner up was

a matter of freedom of speech.


“The reason is that The University of Toledo respects the First Amendment rights of our

students, faculty and staff,” Gaber said in her letter. “While we may not always agree with the

way individuals or organizations choose to express their views, we must respect their freedom to

do so.”


Lee Strang, professor of law at UT, said the First Amendment protected the banner, and

that there are only four instances where speech is not protected by the Constitution – incitement,

true threats, fighting words and harassment.


The banner did not fall under any of these categories, because it did not cause physical or

mental harm and was not “severe or offensive” enough to warrant its removal, he said.


The “free speech battle” that resulted from the College Democrats’ banner is not new to

universities, said Sam Nelson, chairman of the Political Science and Public Administration

Department at UT.


“The current moment [of this debate] is not new, but it has different elements,” Nelson



Social media is a new dynamic that results in “Twitter Outrage Syndrome,” which allows

individuals to react immediately and emotionally, he said.


Not everyone can make it to these forums, and not everyone who participates influences

the student body, Thomas said.


“We need to [get] those who have power on campus and those who have an impact on

students such as Resident Life, Greek Life and Student Government,” he said.


To get students to discuss “uncomfortable” topics, Thomas said the administration should

encourage students to be uncomfortable.


Sydney Jones, president of the College Democrats, suggested adding on to the orientation

program first-year students must take.


“It would be called Unpacking Your Bias,” Jones said. “Everyone has bias, and we have

to acknowledge that.”


If the university adopts this program, it would introduce younger students to

uncomfortable conversations, she said.

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