Panelists discuss issues surrounding free speech and expression

Last week, four expert panelists came together at the Lewis Center on 25 E. Jackson to speak at DePaul’s Inclusive Speech and Expression Panel, which parsed how the two elements of speech come together on college campuses across America.

Jennifer L. Rosato Perea, the dean of DePaul University College of Law, conducted the 30-minute Q&A session with the audience, which led to healthy, constructive debates about how to involve other people such as faculty members in free speech deliberation.

Four distinctive professionals, all of whom held a variety of opinions about free speech law, served as panelists: David L. Hudson Jr., a law professor at Vanderbilt University and First Amendment expert; Alexander Tsesis, a professor of constitutional law at Loyola University Chicago; Derald Wing Sue, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University; and Stephanie Shonekan, chair of the department of black studies and associate professor of ethnomusciology and black studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

The first half of the discussion touched on racial issues and their prevalence in society and, specifically, on college campuses.

Derald Wing, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, listens to questions from the audience during the Inclusive Speech and Expression panel. (Tariqah Shakir/The DePaulia)
Derald Wing, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, listens to questions from the audience during the Inclusive Speech and Expression panel. (Tariqah Shakir/The DePaulia)

“While we talk about the fact that the First Amendment is our blueprint for personal liberty, and the default position is protection of free speech, there is less free speech protection if you are a public school student, if you are a public employee, if you’re a member of the military or if you’re an inmate,” Hudson said. “The court has carefully crafted separate bodies of law in these areas.”

Tsesis, who teaches courses on both constitutional law and the First Amendment, said that speech issues derive from using the amendment to the extent of  harassment and denouncement of certain social groups. He has also written a book catered to the discussion entitled “Destructive Messages: How Hate Speech Paves the Way for Harmful Social Movements” from the New York University Press. He emphasized the implication of “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” for students that might perceive certain subjects as sensitive and potentially offensive.

Sue said microaggressions are rampant throughout American culture and oftentimes negate the objective of free speech, specifically for some marginalized groups of students.

“I hear the African proverb that says that ‘the true tale of the lion hunt will never be told as long as the hunter tells the story,” he said. “And this is what I think that we are failing to see — a big clash of racial realities.

“When the Black Lives Matter statements come on and when people talk about it, and I hear politicians say that ‘all lives matter’, to me that fits perfectly the definition of a racial microaggression.”

Microaggressions are, according to Sue, brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.

The case of Milo Yiannopoulos, who made a controversial appearance on DePaul’s campus, provoking a “hostile environment” which lead to his ban for a second speech, was a primary example of microaggressions, according to Sue.

Shonekan commented on the importance of incorporating diverse material into curriculum.

“I think as professors, we should be giving some context to the books we are teaching,” she said, citing examples such as “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. She also noted that materials should be updated, specifically that which concerns a particular culture, so the audience can have a greater depiction of the current state of American society.

Final commentaries were about including educators in advocating free speech and expression, and that there should be an obligation to elaborate on what is considered offensive to marginal groups who are exercising their freedom of speech.