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UAlbany Hosts Free Speech Symposium

By Shawn Ness, Julia Ross-McGuire, and Vince Gasparini | September 18, 2023

Suzanne Nossel (left) and UAlbany President Havidán Rodríguez (right)

Photo Credit: Laik Dugue / Albany Student Press

The University at Albany hosted a free speech symposium; titled “Free Speech and Civil Discourse: Our Rights, Our Responsibilities” with seven different panels throughout the day with various speakers – including university President Havidán Rodríguez and PEN America President Suzanne Nossel.

The sessions were as follows:

  1. Welcome Breakfast

  2. The First Amendment and Law School Campus Speech: A Primer and a Perspective

  3. A Talk with Nadine Strossen the author of ‘Hate: Why We Should Resist it with Free Speech, Not Censorship’

  4. Faculty lunch workshop on engaging students in discussions of controversial issues

  5. Banned books readout

  6. Trans Existence as an Act of Free Speech

  7. A Complex Relationship: Free Speech, Academic Freedom, and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI)

  8. A conversation between President Havidán Rodríguez and Suzanne Nossel

The discussions are a precursor to Constitution Day, “as faculty, students, guests and members of the UAlbany and Albany Law School communities gather to consider the intersection of free speech, advocacy, civil discourse and knowledge,” according to a UAlbany press release,

A Conversation with UAlbany President Havidán Rodríguez and PEN America President Suzanne Nossel

The conversation between President Rodríguez and Nossel was hosted by the New York State Writers Institute. Rodríguez noted to Nossel that in her book, she wrote about a black student that had indicated his concern that the First Amendment was not written for him, or people like him.

“I was taken aback, I went to law school. I kind of thought that this was a bedrock principle that we are all subscribed to,” Nossel said. “And to hear this young Black woman that seemed to be so alienated from the very principle of freedom of speech. The First Amendment was written at a time when her forebearers were considered three-fifths of a person at the time, and they had no part in the drafting of the Bill of Rights.”

Much of the discussion was about free speech specifically on college campuses, and that free speech should be defended, even if that speech is unpopular or offensive. “That’s where the rubber meets the road,” Nossel said. “Free speech is not about protecting speech that everyone wants to hear… [the first amendment] does not say anything about what, for example, a private university can do, or a social media company can do. The First Amendment doesn’t offer a lot of guidance.”

Nossel explained that a university should create a welcoming environment that is “open to all people regardless of your racial identity, gender identity, or religion. To me, that’s part of the experience of college, to be able to confront all that and go to a lecture from somebody we disagree with, just to hear about it and think ‘How will we respond against this? How will we fight against this?’ [if a controversial speaker] that the university asks to shut down, it undercuts the whole system [of the First Amendment] because it means that student organizations are not able to invite whoever they want and that there may be a list of people that can overrule that.”

Trans Existence as an Act of Free Speech

The fifth event of the day, “Trans Existence as an Act of Free Speech” had two panelists Meagan Nolasco and Nathaniel Gray, the Advocacy Outreach Coordinator and Executive Director of the Pride Center of the Capital Region, respectively. The two noted that neither of them were transgender, they both identified as cisgender queer individuals. The panelists discussed free speech from a human rights perspective rather than a legal one.

Gray identified the panel as being important “at a time when suicide is the second main cause of death for teenagers generally and LGB, lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual…three times more likely than all their peers to commit suicide, trans youth five times more likely.”

Gray went on to explain that free speech is not absolute. The panelists continued by identifying the exceptions to free speech and the variety of laws from numerous organizations including the state, SUNY, and the city of Albany, amongst others.

It was also discussed that many individuals don't understand the limits to free speech including those who are meant to enforce it. Gray shared a story in which he was verbally assaulted at an Albany Emergency Room, and when he demanded his assaulter be removed, he was told by a security guard that their tolerance policy required Gray to respect all people. Gray eventually received support from hospital staff, who called for the man to be removed.

Upon clarifying questions from the audience, Gray emphasized that “no one is actually giving up their freedom of speech…what they are giving away is their freedom of repercussion.”

The panel was open-ended and received comments and questions from participants throughout the panel. Several audience members brought up an event that occurred last semester in which Turning Point USA brought in an anti-trans speaker, resulting in a protest that saw two UAlbany students arrested.

A campus librarian brought up their concerns that the law should not be utilized to protect trans people, stating in reference to student arrests at the TPUSA protest, “I don’t necessarily feel as a queer person…that the police are there to protect me.”

A trans student stated that “the university in their outward message regarding the issue didn’t say anything to specifically support or acknowledge its trans community, it simply said things based on protecting free speech, and this all ties back to the way we politicize people because trans people are not a political issue, we’re just humans.”

The student went on to say this symposium was meant to address the TPUSA protest. Another student echoed this sentiment stating that the UAlbany webpage read “The symposium was created as a response to events from the Spring 2023 semester.” The student added this “ultimately falls flat without actually enacting change.”

An additional student brought up a concern that the student activity fee was utilized for the TPUSA event.

The talk concluded with event chair, Zakhar Berkovich, Director of Undergraduate Student Services at Rockefeller College clarifying student comments surrounding the TPUSA protest. Berkovich stated that the student activity fee was not utilized for the event or to pay the speaker.

Berkovich also stated that “the Free Speech Symposium is not a direct response to the events of last semester but it is encompassed in our understanding.”

The First Amendment and Law School Campus Speech: A Primer and a Perspective

This panel was chaired by Deputy Director of the Government Law Center Patrick Woods. Woods is also an adjunct professor at Albany Law School. Topics of this session were heavily policy-based. The panel discussed how free speech can be restricted in certain instances to protect the student body, and how it is important to have a well-thought-out policy in place so that it is clear when the policy is violated.

Woods also addressed how it is important to let students know the power they have to organize their own events in response to rhetoric that they find offensive and the importance of having difficult conversations about difficult issues.

A Complex Relationship: Free Speech, Academic Freedom, and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI)

This panel featured Ciji Dodds, an associate professor at Albany Law School, and Ashley Fox, an associate professor and undergraduate director at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at UAlbany. The discussion was moderated by UAlbany’s Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Samuel Caldwell, and co-moderated by Carter Lepin, a senior at UAlbany studying Political Science and Latin American, Caribbean, and U.S. Latino Studies.

Dodds was asked by Caldwell what academic freedom looks like in the context of free speech. “Academic freedom goes to as a professor: your research, your writing, what you say in class. I’ll just speak from my personal perspective, and as a professor, I feel like I have an obligation to not affirmatively abuse my students,” Dodds said. “That being said, I don’t believe in trigger warnings for a variety of reasons. Number one: you are placing someone in a position to be a mental health professional… in a classroom, we are all adults. And are expected to be able to conduct yourselves accordingly and to engage in vigorous debate. That is the purpose of college. And people conflate harm and abuse with being offended”

Dodds explained that when it comes to hate speech, the U.S. has one of the broadest rights to free speech, she also mentioned Germany and its limitations of free speech about the holocaust and that that kind of speech can manifest with consequences.

“You have to ask yourself ‘How do we deal with hate?’ That’s when you get to those categories of unprotected speech where you have the KKK making real threats,” Dodds said.

Megan Leville, a graduate student at UAlbany studying political science, brought up the fact that European countries such as Germany guarantee free speech, but also limit speech such as Holocaust denial.

“So it really makes me wonder; if most other Western democracies are able to recognize and have provisions against hate speech, while also being globally recognized as having stronger free speech protections in the United States, is hate speech really free speech?” Leville asked.

Fox responded and said that in doing some research in preparation for the event, she read about the UN adopting strategies for hate speech legislation. “... acknowledgment of the fact that hate speech has contributed to atrocities throughout history and a precursor to atrocities. But when you look at how to combat hate speech, time and time again, the best way to counter hate speech is through vigorous protests and counter-protests.”

The events concluded on Friday with “Introduction to Facilitating Dialogue with Peers: A Constructive Dialogue Institute Workshop.” It was a four-hour training session for student leaders of organizations on UAlbany’s campus that are “looking to make a dialogue key component of their co-curricular or Residential Life spaces.”


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