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Professors debate free speech and protest

| Thursday, October 11, 2018

Professors debated the role of the freedom of speech at public universities in a debate sponsored by the Notre Dame Student Chapter of the Federalist Society, American Civil Liberties Union and the Constitutional Studies Program Wednesday at Eck Hall of Law.

Josh Blackman, a law professor at the South Texas College of Law, began the debate by sharing his own personal experience reconciling free speech with social protest. He said he was once protested by students while giving a lecture at the City University of New York (CUNY). The protest ultimately prevented from him from delivering his lecture, he said.

Blackman said students protested his lecture because of his conservative views on topics such as President Donald Trump’s travel ban and DACA.

“They were convinced that because of these positions. … I didn’t belong on their campus,” he said.

The students’ belief in making their campus a safe space — a space free from prejudice — was what motivated them to protest against him, Blackman said.

Blackman said although he believes the protest was organized with good intentions, it insulated students from hearing opinions different from their own.

“Where I think they went awry was instead of presenting themselves in a way that challenged me and ask[ed] questions, they sought to shout them down,” he said. “And when I tried to engage them and ask them questions, they were utterly unable to effectively respond.”

Instead, he said, colleges and universities ought to encourage those holding different opinions to engage in conversation with one another.

“Law schools, I think, have an obligation, and all colleges have a duty, to expose their students to a wide range of perspectives,” he said.

To do so, he said he believes guest speakers should be protected from protestors seeking to interrupt their presentations or antagonize them.

“Why does a speaker need security?” he asked. “At CUNY, I was actually quite afraid.”

Agustin Fuentes, a professor of anthropology at Notre Dame, followed Blackman. He said he acknowledged the importance of free speech but warned it can also be used as a tool of prejudice.

“To understand why protests happen on campus, we have to understand the world in which we live,” he said. “The landscape of inequality is real. Discrimination is pervasive and powerful. Racism, sexism, bias and inequality create very unequal experiences and difference perceptions of and relationships with U.S.A. society.”

He added that social protest is crucial because it is a significant way in which students today challenge inequality.

“The current movement to speak up, speak out and not shut up — that is, to protest — is about opposing the intentional propagation of lies, misrepresentations and deliberate assertions that seek to deny or remove the rights of others,” he said.

Fuentes also said he defended making campuses safe spaces because it offers protection to those who are victims of prejudice.

“Freedom of speech does not mean that those individuals who are unfairly at risk for [hate] cannot be offered spaces of protection where they’re able to participate or engage with others in a context free of direct targeting,” he said.

Fuentes said because freedom of speech risks harming victims of inequality, whether intentionally or unintentionally, discussions about free speech should not be made outside of the context of social prejudice.

“If we engage in this conversation without thinking about context of all involved, if we think there is some bottom line that no matter what, words cannot do the damage, I think we’re really short selling what words do,” he said.

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About Mary Steurer

Mary is a senior sociology major and journalism minor from St. Louis. An aspiring religion reporter, Mary has spent the last year covering conversations about the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis at Notre Dame.

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