Free speech on campus a timely topic for Senate Council’s Spring Plenary


The 2019 Spring Plenary session on March 27, hosted by Pitt’s Senate Council, will examine the state of free speech in the higher education landscape.

Senate Council President Chris Bonneau said he and the other Senate Council officers selected the topic of “Free Speech in the Modern University” for the plenary because of its timeliness.

Bonneau pointed out several instances in the past few years where inflammatory speakers, such as Milo Yiannopoulos, were invited to speak on college campuses and their presence sometimes sparked violent protests.

He also said this is an issue that also affects faculty, noting a recent controversy at the University of Chicago, where a law professor used a racial slur in class to teach free speech law.

President Donald Trump also said at the Conservative Political Action Conference on March 2 that he’d sign an executive order threatening to withhold federal aid if a university doesn’t promote free speech.

“It’s an issue that is really coming to the forefront from both on the right and on the left,” Bonneau said. “And universities are in this really interesting position here where, obviously, we believe in the right of free speech and expression of ideas. At the same time, we want to provide an environment (where) everyone can learn and everyone is able to do their best work.”

Bonneau added that these two goals can often create tension when it’s time to address them through policies.

The plenary’s keynote speaker is 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.

Bonneau said attendees can expect Ben-Porath to promote an “interesting discussion” on the topic.

“And one of the things she tackles in this book is how we should be thinking about these issues and the tradeoffs specifically in a university setting,” Bonneau said. “I expect (her) to offer some recommendations and some things that worked well, some things that haven’t worked well and give us some things to think about.”

Following Ben-Porath’s keynote, there will be a panel discussion with 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.

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher and Provost Ann Cudd also are scheduled to speak at the event.

Bonneau said he hopes the event will provoke the Pitt community to re-examine the effectiveness of its current policies to make sure they promote a healthy environment for the exchange of ideas.

“I want people to think about, how can I promote an atmosphere of a free intellectual engagement on campus while ensuring that we’re not adversely affecting the learning outcomes in the environment of other people who may find some speech offensive or problematic.”

The plenary session will take place from noon to 3 p.m. March 27 in the Assembly Room at the William Pitt Union. The session will include a complimentary lunch.

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