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PEN America Creates Discussion On How ‘Free’ Freedom Of Speech Is On College Campuses

By Dawn Richard, Layout Editor
Posted 1:00 PM EST, Weds., Dec. 7, 2016

Editor’s Note: Due to the controversy of some of the topics, the event used the Chatham house rules that will not allow the identity or the affiliation of the persons that spoke to be used for reporting purposes.

PEN America hosted “And Campus for All,” a freedom of speech conference, at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to allow students and administrators from around the country to discuss the current freedom of speech rights on college campuses, especially when it comes to minorities and students with disabilities, Nov. 18-19.

The two-day event unveiled the backlash students sometimes receive when they attempt to use their First Amendment right, the freedom of speech, on their college campuses to protest and call for their administration to assist them with the injustices they experience.

PEN America gathered some of the most outspoken journalists, student activists, and deans from prestigious universities to explore the issues of freedom of speech when used by certain demographics on college campuses such as African-Americans, Palestinians and students with disabilities.

When the panel of experts and students were asked if they sensed a threat concerning freedom of speech on their campuses, almost every hand was raised. This was established at the beginning of the event and clearly identified that there is certainly a crisis pertaining to students being able to speak freely on their campuses. All in attendance also agreed that only certain viewpoints are represented as it suits the interest of the administration of that particular institution.

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As the participants examined the issues African-American student activists encounter at Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs), the conversations became teary-eyed and difficult to discuss for some. While some participants were stating their beliefs that words such as “n*gger” and other racial slurs can be used under the First Amendment with no consequences, some of the student activists were explaining why these phrases should not be used on their campuses due to the emotional effects it can have on the African-American students.

Some administrators felt that unless harm was being afflicted with racial slurs, the students are free to use them in classrooms, dorms, student organizations, etc. In contrast, some of the student activists opposed this statement and mentioned how the Constitution was not created for all people at the time it was written.

“The First Amendment was not created with us [African-Americans] in mind because we weren’t considered people back then,” said Storm Ervin, a member of Concerned Student 1950 (which was also the year that the University of Missouri admitted its first black student).

Ervin was among one of the participants who allowed her name to be published. Ervin held her position that racial slurs and racism should not be allowed on college campuses even if the first amendment can be used to defend the racial slurs.

This invigorating event concluded with a group project where all the participants worked in groups to brainstorm possible ways to reduce the threat that is present with using the freedom of speech on college campuses. There was a wide range of solutions but many of them involved having students become a part of the executive board, attempting to have similar discussions about freedom of speech at college campuses, offering diversity classes for students and faculties, and creating student unions.

To learn more about freedom of speech on college campuses go to: www.pen.org

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