Campus Deliberative Forum on responsibilities of free speech

Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor Credit: Lisa Qian/Photo Editor Credit: Lisa Qian/Photo Editor

As the topic of the right to freedom of speech continues to become increasingly controversial across the nation, former and current members of the Carnegie Mellon community gathered to discuss the campus policy at the Campus Deliberative Forum (CDF) on Free Speech, Inclusion, and Democracy co-hosted this past Saturday by the Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion and the Program for Deliberative Democracy. The discussion was comprised of several five-person focus groups with a panel discussion session toward the end of the conference.

The discussions started off with a conversation on what is defined as free speech. “We can’t have free speech without people abusing it. Where is the place we draw the line? What is considered racist? What is considered xenophobic?” said Richard Hoffberg, a junior majoring in Mechanical Engineering. Other focus groups discussed similar concepts. The general consensus seemed to be that, if there was a controversial topic or speaker, there needed to be discussion amongst people of all perspectives.

Another key topic that was introduced was the problem of undergraduate political apathy. An anonymous contributor claimed that “students don’t care about important topics unless they personally impact them or everyone is talking about them.”
Though the purpose of the forum was not to create solutions, many thought that requiring a basic civics course would alleviate some of the problems regarding participation.

With over 20 percent of the student body with homes overseas, an introductory civics course entering the university would allow for a more diverse array of participants in student government and activism. In regards to international students, an anonymous graduate student explained that there are “different mechanisms for different groups, [for instance] Asian students are taught to stay obedient and not challenge loudly.”

The discussions became increasingly profound and intense. When it came time for discussion with the administrative panel, however, the conversations with detailed analysis came to a grinding halt. Though it is the role of the administrative representative to remain a neutral representative of the university and its interests, it was difficult for that role to manifest in a forum where position taking was necessary.

Dan Munsch, Assistant General Counsel at Carnegie Mellon, explained that “the right to speech is very broad. We are a private institution, we do not have to defend the first amendment, but we choose to.” Holly Hippensteel, Associate Vice President for Community Standards and Diversity Initiatives, when asked about the criteria for protected free speech, said that there is no “operational definition of creative inquiry. As we think about it, there has to be a mix of of intellectual and creative expression.”

And, if there was to be a highly controversial and divisive speaker, what would the university do if there were students who felt unsafe? Dean of Students and Vice President for Student Affairs Gina Casalegno stated that students would naturally mobilize and get ready for the process of engagement. She evidenced the Westboro Baptist’s cameo on campus as a source for inspiration. “There were students who sang the hate away and also students who didn’t feel safe in the environment, so the university set up an event in the center for diversity.”

At the conference’s conclusion, the campus policy remained as vague as when it was first penned. But, the most important result of the conference most definitely was the engagements the participants could then spread to other students and faculty on campus.