Senate hearing discusses free speech on college campuses

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The United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing about free speech on college campuses Tuesday after a number of recent protests and canceled speakers at colleges around the country, including Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter’s planned events on the UC Berkeley campus.

Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional law expert and incoming dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law, said while it shows that Senate cares about the issue of free speech, the hearing will most likely not have any policy implications.

At the hearing, seven witnesses gave testimony in order to provide senators with opinions about the issue. These witnesses included Floyd Abrams, a First Amendment lawyer; Fanta Aw, the interim vice president of campus life at American University; and various college students. 

One of the students, Zachary R. Wood — who attends Williams College in Massachusetts — leads a campus club at Williams called Uncomfortable Learning. The organization attempts to broaden the range of Williams’ campus political discourse by hosting speakers with controversial views, according to Wood.

At the hearing, Wood, who identifies as a liberal democrat, testified that students should be exposed to provocative views that challenge their assumptions. He critiqued a phenomenon he called the “echo chamber,” in which, he said, liberal students accept liberal beliefs as unquestionable truths.

“I deplore the state of free speech and intellectual freedom on my campus,” Wood said at the hearing.

He added that his efforts to bring controversial speakers to Williams have been met with backlash from fellow students. Wood said people sometimes see the decision to bring in these speakers as a personal attack, but that students on both sides of the political spectrum should learn to separate their ideas from their feelings, even though the process is difficult.

“You can’t fully (separate the two), but that’s what you have to try to do,” Wood said. “Feelings matter and ideas matter. Mental toughness and resilience is useful.”

Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, or SPLC, also testified at Tuesday’s hearing. Cohen said universities can and should take a position when their students invite controversial speakers, but campuses should not prevent these guests from speaking.

Lecia Brooks, outreach director for the SPLC, added that university leaders should provide adequate security instead of canceling controversial events like the Yiannopoulos event. Brooks praised outgoing Chancellor Nicholas Dirks for sending out a detailed email in which he condemned Yiannopoulos as a “troll and provocateur,” but added that UCPD could have handled the event in a “smarter” manner.

Campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof acknowledged that UC Berkeley and other schools must confront the challenge of individuals and groups who try to disrupt controversial speakers through violent tactics. The process is an “enormous challenge,” Mogulof said.

Mogulof, however, said UC Berkeley remains committed to providing venues for guests from across the political and ideological spectrum.

“There are people who believe erroneously that somehow this university has stood in the way of conservative and liberal speakers who wish to engage with members of the campus community,” Mogulof said. “Our commitment to the First Amendment is unwavering.”

Chemerinsky said the UC system is committed to free speech, adding that all ideas and views — no matter how offensive — can be expressed on college campuses, but campuses need to look for ways to promote an inclusive learning environment for students.

“Campuses need to make clear that all ideas and views can be expressed no matter what,” Chemerinksy said.

Contact Rachael Cornejo at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @RachaelCornejo.