Forum held on free expression within a university setting

A forum was held last Tuesday titled Freedom of Expression in the University: Rights and Challenges, which explored freedom of expression on college campuses and the ideas of civility and respect.

A panel consisting of Professor of Law Vik Amar, Professor of Law Alan Brownstein, UC Davis Civility Project affiliate Jaki Joanino, UC Davis Civility Project affiliate Chris McCroy and Senior Counsel to the UC Office of the President Margaret Wu was moderated by Dean of the UC Davis School of Law Kevin Johnson and undergraduate student Tatiana Bush.

Opening the forum, panelists took turns explaining specific aspects of the First Amendment and what the Civility Project is. Panelists then took questions from the audience that mostly centered around recent events on campus concerning free speech and free expression.

“We protect the right for people to express themselves authentically,” said Brownstein, speaking of the United States government.

Brownstein went on to explain government’s role as a regulator of speech through such mediums as content-neutral regulations that state that the non-communicative impact of speech can be regulated.

“People who speak with a soft voice have free speech rights too,” said Brownstein after turning his focus to time, place and manner rules that allocate speech times. “We as a university can select which time, place and manner rules are to be added.”

Senior Counsel Wu focused her talk on hate speech.

“There are several cases protecting very controversial and notorious organizations like the Ku Klux Klan,” said Wu. “Just because something is highly offensive and disturbing doesn’t mean that the university or any other government agency can prohibit that.”

Wu later said that the narrowly defined terms of threats, obscenity and fighting words were not protected by the Constitution. Professor Amar explained government’s ability to control speech within the U. S. education system. Amar said that government wants to encourage inquiry and discussion in universities.

McCoy of the UC Davis Civility Project described the Civility Project as a response to the numerous acts of incivility on UC campuses such as the vandalism against the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Resource Center (LGBTRC) here at UC Davis.

“Civility is a constant process,” McCoy said.

Undergraduate student Jaki Joanino unexpectedly broke out into song, sharing her frustrations with the way student free speech has been treated on campus. She described the forum as a gimmick used to better the image of the administration.

“It seems that money is the only thing that talks,” Joanino said.

The second part of the forum consisted of questions and comments from the audience.

One question brought before the panel was whether callous and threatening speech used on websites such as Facebook was constitutionally protected. Panelists said that courts have been ambiguous on the matter, noting that it is a fairly recent phenomenon.

Another question was asked about the constitutionality of the recent U. S. Bank blockade on the UC Davis campus. Most of the panelists said that blockading is not a protected First Amendment activity.

At the conclusion of the forum, panelists and audience members agreed that change was needed to improve UC Davis’ campus climate relating to free expression.

“Sometimes it’s the right thing to break a rule,” said Brownstein, referring to the Civil Rights Movement.

MAX GARRITY RUSSER can be reached at campus@theaggie.org.

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