Free speech panel debate First Amendment

DePaul became a major talking point in the national debate over free speech on college campuses after a visit from conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos turned chaotic last May.

But DePaul is in no way unique. College administrations across the country have struggled in their response to balance free speech while maintaining a campus environment welcoming of an increasingly diverse student body.

Left to right: Black Student Union president Mario Morrow, University of Chicago professor Gerald Rosenberg and senior journalist in residence at DePaul Chris Bury discuss free speech on college campuses. (Danielle Harris/The DePaulia)
Left to right: Black Student Union president Mario Morrow, University of Chicago professor Gerald Rosenberg and senior journalist in residence at DePaul Chris Bury discuss free speech on college campuses. (Danielle Harris/The DePaulia)

As part of national Free Speech Week, the DePaul Society of Professional Journalists and the Center for Journalistic Integrity and Excellence co-sponsored a panel discussion Oct. 20 to address the continuing debate over free speech on college campuses. Moderated by DePaul’s senior journalist-in-residence Chris Bury, the “Free Speech on Campus: A conversation for Free Speech Week” event was 90 minutes of intense discussion over issues such as safe spaces, trigger warnings and the administration’s role in defining the line between free speech and hate speech.

Bury was joined by five panelists familiar with the debate surrounding free speech on college campuses: Gabriella Caldarone of the DePaul College Republicans, Kristen McQueary of the Chicago Tribune editorial board, President of the DePaul Black Students Union (BSU) Mario Morrow, Jr., DePaul’s Vice President for Institutional Diversity and Equity Elizabeth Ortiz and Gerald Rosenberg, a lawyer and associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago Law School.

The First Amendment protects the right of American citizens to free speech, but Bury opened the panel’s discussion by addressing the amendment’s limitations.

“The First Amendment really protects speech that is threatened by the government,” Bury said. “And the threats to free speech today are often coming from those that are not government actors; from those not in government who seek to stifle the speech of whom they disagree. In some ways, those threats can be even more insidious than government threats because the First Amendment offers us no protection against those who seek to intimidate or to silence.”

Being a private university, DePaul has the ability to limit speech on campus that it finds offensive or contrary to its Catholic and Vincentian mission. Because of this, the debate over where to divide the line between hate speech and free speech is especially relevant on DePaul’s campuses.

Rosenberg pointed out how his background in law contributes to his views regarding free speech on college campuses.

“The fact that we are having these kinds of panel discussions to me is really exciting because I’m also a lawyer, I also teach at the (University of Chicago) law school,” Rosenberg said. “They don’t like me very much there because if I had a bumper sticker it would say ‘The First Amendment is not worth the paper it’s printed on,’ because it does not protect free speech. What protects free speech is organized people and democratic engagement, not (the law).”

When asked about whether private institutions should use their right to ban speech it deems not on par with constructive intellectual discussion, Morrow said he wouldn’t say that “any speech should be curtailed because of its offense.”


However, he also acknowledged the importance of maintaining a campus where all students feel welcomed, regardless of their race, sexual orientation or gender identity.

“Here at DePaul, this is home to a lot of students, to all students, especially those who live off campus or are from out of state like myself,” Morrow said. “This is the only home in Chicago that I know. . . (But) why should I go to an institution that prides itself on diversity and equity when those who are speaking have the privilege to say one thing, but then my feelings are also invalidated?”

Ortiz responded to Morrow’s concerns and the difficulties the DePaul administration faces trying to foster an inclusive environment.

“I’m not a free speech expert, but what I am is an administrator who is looking at the tension between free speech, hate speech and (. . .) what it means to have a diverse campus where people feel welcomed and respected and can live and learn in an environment that is conducive to that learning,” Ortiz said. “And so across this country administrators are grappling with this. And there’s no easy answer and I think we are going to be faced with these questions not only for this (presidential) election cycle, but for years to come.”

She pointed to safe spaces as a method of fostering intellectual discussion and debate and eliminating attacks like those that occurred after the Yiannopoulos event.

“This is not an escape from the world,” Ortiz said. “It is just a place where people of like minds can get together and learn and grow and develop together.”

But Caldarone and McQueary both expressed concern over safe spaces and the danger of protecting students from what could be considered offensive speech.

McQueary said that as a journalist, her concerns regarding free speech are quite different from those of college administrations.“I walk under a quote that is inscribed on the wall on the Tribune everyday from Voltaire that says, ‘I disagree with all that you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it,’” she said. “And so when we see any efforts to suppress alternate opinions, we are generally going to side on the side of the First Amendment.”

Caldarone of the DePaul Student Republicans said that DePaul’s required security fees for controversial speakers demonstrate an administration suppressing free speech for groups with views opposing those of the university.

“It’s not just the College Republicans facing this,” Caldarone said. “Recently, the socialist club invited a speaker and they were faced with a fine for having to cover security fees that they could not afford to pay and therefore they were not allowed to have their event. So we are not only trying to fight for our right to have speakers and free speech but also other groups on campus so we can try and set a precedent of free speech at DePaul.”

The topic of controversial speakers quickly turned to a debate over the usefulness of DePaul College Republicans inviting Yiannopoulos last May and whether or not the organization was right to invite such a divisive speaker to campus.

Ortiz was quick to point out the racial slurs that were directed at student protesters outside the event and the harm that language inflicted on those targeted.

“I spent the last five months working with students over some of the trauma that occurred that day,” Ortiz said. “So to say it only lasted 15 minutes is inaccurate. It lasted hours and it went well into the evening. We still have students that are traumatized. We had to hire an additional counselor to deal with some of this trauma.”

Like most topics discussed at the panel, Morrow and Caldarone were at odds with one another. When he asked Caldarone whether or not the Yiannopoulos event was held with a genuine intention of facilitating civil debate, she defended her organization and said that if protesters hadn’t shut down the event they could have confronted the conservative firebrand during the question and answer session that would have been held at the end of the debate. Morrow was unsatisfied with her answer and swiftly countered this argument.

“I feel as if this was not the proper approach to have such conversation or to have the conversation you guys intended because if you’re only having a group of people that have one-sided perspectives, then it’s not going to go anywhere,” Morrow said. “His flyers literally said ‘Feminism is cancer,’ and as a woman that should offend you.”

His statement was met with cheers from many of the audience members.

Rosenberg was wary about any censorship of speech, even though he admitted to finding Yiannopoulos “absolutely horrible.”

Pictured, from left to right: DePaul College Republicans member Gabriella Caldarone and the Chicago Tribune's Kristen McQueary. (Danielle Harris/The DePaulia)
Pictured, from left to right: DePaul College Republicans member Gabriella Caldarone and the Chicago Tribune’s Kristen McQueary. (Danielle Harris/The DePaulia)

“We have a history in this country of shutting down speech that is offensive to whites because it said slavery is wrong,” Rosenberg said. “We killed people for that. We have a history of arresting people that said ‘we want progressive taxation.’ We had a Cold War in the 1950s that fired and arrested faculty members who did not agree with market economies. Let’s not forget that. Once we go down this line, I know you have the best of intentions and I really mean it, (but) it just frightens me because our history is not confident.”

Rosenberg also said that although he was initially wary of using trigger warnings as a professor, he eventually realized that he was already giving students a heads up about potentially uncomfortable topics and said that he has never had a student leave a class after hearing a trigger warning.

After the hour-long panel discussion, Bury opened up the floor for questions from the audience. Things quickly became tense when an audience member confronted Caldarone about the DePaul College Republicans statement released after the Yiannopoulos that described the protests as “thuggery.”

Caldarone said that she was not involved in that statement but assured him that her organization was denouncing all groups involved in the protest and was not solely targeting the black protesters. 

The audience member was visibly unsatisfied with this explanation, and at one point even said “I really want you to read a f—— history book,” to understand the racial implications of words like “thuggery” and “militant.”

Even Bury was subjected to impolite language when, after asking an audience member to clarify exactly what her question was for the panelists, she attacked him for speaking to her in what she perceived as a patronizing tone.

The panel by no means solved the issues surrounding free speech at DePaul and other universities, but DePaul senior Brianna Cokley considered the event a step in the right direction and encouraged the university to host similar events even after the culmination of Free Speech Week.

“Hopefully different organizations, faculty and staff can (work together) to move forward from here,” Cokley said.

Editor’s note: The DePaulia’s managing editor, Rachel Hinton, is president of SPJ and editor-in-chief Jessica Villagomez is vice president. They were not involved with the direct editing of this article.