Free speech on campus means being inclusive about people and ideas

Panel discussion at Senate Plenary


As students from the Black Student Union protested the shooting of Antwon Rose outside the William Pitt Union on March 27, inside, Pitt faculty, staff and students engaged in the Senate Council Plenary on Free Speech in the Modern University.

The topic was as timely as ever, many of the speakers noted, as Rose’s death sparked an outcry throughout Pittsburgh. East Pittsburgh Police Officer Michael Rosfeld was acquitted of homicide on March 22 after shooting and killing an unarmed Rose, 17, last summer.

President Trump also signed an executive order on March 21 demanding universities promote free speech on campus or lose federal funding, Senate President Chris Bonneau noted.

“We knew that free speech in the modern university would be an important topic,” Bonneau said. “We did not know just how timely it would be."

Sigal Ben-PorathThe plenary keynote speaker was Sigal Ben-Porath, a professor of education, political science and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. She’s also the chair of the Open Communication committee on Penn’s campus, and she penned “Free Speech on Campus,” which Penn Press published in 2017.

Despite some slight technical difficulties in the beginning of her address, she made several observations on student protests on university campuses, the roles universities play with regards to maintaining free speech, and more.

Ben-Porath said universities have a responsibility to “create an inclusive climate where not only all ideas are welcome, but also all people are welcome.”

“For us to protect the kind of open expression that we have to be committed to, we need to create the condition where everybody knows that they are equal members, respected members of our campus community, and that their views matter to us,” Ben-Porath said.

“The demand on us, as institutions of higher learning, is more significant than what the first amendment will tell you. We need to create a climate where everybody can speak, and everybody cannot just on paper, but reality, know that they can participate and be welcome.”

There are significant challenges colleges are facing today regarding free speech, Ben-Porath noted. There has been a spike in political polarization in recent years. However, she said, there have been similar spikes in previous decades.

There also is increasing diversity at universities challenging the status quo on campuses, which can create tension. This is not inherently negative, Ben-Porath said.

But there are many students coming to campus from “ideologically homogeneous” communities around the country, who often find their beliefs challenged.

Following her keynote, a panel and Q&A discussion featuring Kenyon Bonner, vice provost and dean of students; Kristin Kanthak, an associate professor of political science; and Jules Lobel, the Bessie McKee Walthour endowed chair at the School of Law, further examined the ideas Ben-Porath presented.

One topic that was on the minds of the panelists was the concept of “civility,” and the complex power dynamics attached to the concept.

“One of the concerns about having a rule like ‘civility’ is that the folks in power get to decide what’s ‘civil’ and it often turns out that the folks in power are the least tolerant of discomfort,” Kathanak said. “If I want to have the benefits of free speech, and I want to have the benefits of diversity … you have to be willing to use your power to ensure that those who have less power are able to participate as well.”

Ben-Porath said civility is a “poor guide” to the conversations that should be had on campus. Instead, she said, universities should consider what the goals of the speech are, and what are the impact of the words.

Lobel added that one of the issues with “civility” is that it doesn’t recognize that confrontation, and occasionally, inflammatory speech are the most effective way to get one’s point across. However, there should be balance. Universities should be wary of words that are intended to cause harm.

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher asked the panelists how Pitt should protect students who are in minority groups while preparing the students coming from homogenous communities to engage with different points of view.

Ben-Porath said that the key is to openly advise students on the importance of protecting speech beyond what may be comfortable to them, such as topics of race and racism. There are, of course, topics that should be limited such comments that are openly offensive, racist, sexist, etc.

Bonner said that faculty and staff could show students how to engage one another’s ideas through role modeling how to handle disagreements among each other.

“We need to tell (students) when it comes to these questions of the First Amendment and civility kinds of issues, we need to tell them why it’s important to an intellectual community to have everyone involved,” Kathanak said. “We need to tell them that this is hard.”

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-383-9905.