By: Kevin McDonnell
NIAGARA UNIVERSITY, N.Y. – Niagara University hosted the first of a series of Common Good conversations on Sept. 24 on the topic of campus free speech. The event was introduced by Father Aidan Rooney as part of the second in a larger series of NUTalks hosted by Campus Ministry and moderated by Dr. Carrie Teresa, Chair of the Communication Studies Department. The talk included a panel comprised of both current and former faculty members: Dr. David Reilly (Political Science), Dr. Abigail Levin (Philosophy), Kalen Churcher (Communications) and Kevin Hinkley (Political Science). Together the panel broke down the issue of free speech using the University of Michigan protests as a case study.
In October of 2017, University of Michigan students protested an event hosted by UM’s College Republicans, that featured Charles Murray as a guest speaker. Murray’s presence on campus sparked outrage because of ideas espoused in his book The Bell Curve. Critics of the book argue that Murray’s viewpoints represent an example of modern-day eugenics, a set of beliefs historically associated with narratives of racial inferiority. Murray argues that critics of his book have not actually read the argument and that college campuses have shifted in ideology and tone.
The panelists each took an opportunity to discuss the event from their point of view. Professor Hinkley provided a legal framework from which to understand the conceptions of free speech. He dispelled the notion that free speech is truly absolute and noted that the law provides ample cases in which there are limitations set on free speech in society. Despite limitations on speech however, ‘hate speech’ is not limited under the existing law therefore, Murray’s talk while controversial cannot be limited on those grounds.
Professor Churcher proclaimed herself as a free speech absolutist arguing that Murray’s arguments should be heard as a way of understanding opposing viewpoints. She asserted that the protesters missed an opportunity to engage with Murray and pick apart his argument based on the facts.
Dr. Levin was skeptical of free speech absolutism. She argued that language and the collegiate setting create a system of social power. Through language a social hierarchy is formed in which certain people’s opinions are elevated over others. Dr. Levin illustrated the point in analogy in which she showcased that academic settings are dictated by social power in which professors are labeled experts as opposed to students. The argument made is that allowing Murray’s voice to be elevated and respected as an expert validates his less than ideal viewpoints to others supporting this cyclical nature of social power through speech.
Dr. Reilly concluded the talk by focusing on student activists arguing that speech should stretch into protest and advocacy. He argued against free speech absolutism as well and supported the notion of campuses as safe environments in which students can explore ideas in which to attain social justice.
Hinkley in his portion about free speech in the law made note that the free speech rights of students at a private university like Niagara exist solely as a matter of contract. Speech on our campus is not provided the same broad protection speech enjoys in the first amendment. In that way, it seems even more important that these talks happen in order for a consensus to be met between faculty, administrators, and students as the ideals of our community grow.