By Sara Salimi

The Snider Leadership Development Club hosted “Challenge the Conversation: Freedom of Speech on College Campuses” Thursday at the Tyser Auditorium in Van Munching Hall.

The panel event featured Dr. Rajshree Agarwal, Director of the Ed Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets; Gene Policinski, Chief Operating Officer of the Freedom Forum Institute; and Erica Smith, Associate Director of Justice and Legal Thought at UMD.

The panelists led a discussion on the nature of universities as places where students must engage in conversations that are difficult to hear. “Free speech is important because thought is important,” said Agarwal.

She explained that universities must help students develop the skill of thinking and learning to strengthen their beliefs by accepting to hear opposing sides. “You’ll never know what you’re fighting for until you’re confronted by what you’re against,” Agarwal added.

Panelists stressed the importance of speaking up on college campuses, especially with the rising number of student protests on a broad range of national and local issues. Smith explained that students often avoid stating their opinions for fear of being labeled and singled out by other students and even faculty.

The growing culture of fear in schools, she said, is one that must be targeted by assuming that people have the best of intentions unless it is proven otherwise. “If we’re tip-toeing with conversations, then we’re not getting anywhere,” Smith said.

Being politically correct, Agarwal explained, actually translates to avoiding the expression of oneself for fear of misinterpretation. She referred to political correctness as a dangerous tool that effectively leads to self-censorship and one that undermines the Freedom of Speech.

Free speech covers almost all forms of expression. When a student attendee asked the panel whether it is acceptable for public figures to openly disrespect certain groups with derogatory comments, Policinski replied, “hate speech is still protected under the First Amendment.”

He also added that hateful speech must be distinguished from hateful conduct, which comes with consequences. Policinski explained that while it may be uncomfortable to hear what one considers a sensitive topic, the very fact that free speech protects everyone’s right to speak their mind is a testament to a vibrant, living democracy.

Featured Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Sara Salimi/Bloc Reporter.

Sara Salimi is a senior multiplatform journalism major and can be reached at ssara.775@gmail.com. 

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