Deliberative Democracy and Campus Free Speech: Levin College Forum

By Ashley Mott

Rows and rows of seats were set up in the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs atrium, awaiting the forum that was set to take place at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, April 10. However, the actual “Deliberative Democracy and Campus Free Speech: Levin College Forum,” did not start until just after 4:10 p.m. and had the few students that attended wondering why there was such a late start.

Beginning the addresses was Roland V. Anglin, dean and professor of the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs. He spoke on the importance of the forum being held and on the idea that it would be working towards improving free inquiry and transparency among students, faculty and staff.

While his speech was brief to some degree, the panelists were not asked to answer any questions for quite some time. First, the address from William M. Bowen, professor in the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs, had to happen.

Bowen introduced the panelists all while explaining how the forum would work, stating that each panelist would be given the ability to speak on what they believe deliberative democracy and campus free speech to be for a simple length of time: seven to ten minutes.

Following this, there would be two cases presented that each panelist would have time to respond to and comment on, prior to the floor being opened up for questions.

Starting off the forum was panelist Susan J.  Becker, professor of law emerita, Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and General Counsel, ACLU of Ohio. Becker opened up her speech talking about what the freedoms of speech are and how they apply to the human population.

“Congress shall make no law — no law sounds like an absolute prohibition — abridging the freedom of speech, or the press, or the right of people to peaceably assemble.” Becker said, in reference to the First Amendment. “[The law] contains only governmental actors [that] it specifically refers to, Congress of course, but that’s also been extended to state governments or municipalities for those kinds of things, or institutions like Cleveland State University that are run by state actors, essentially.”

With this in mind, Becker goes on to make her point about how free speech relates to students on a college campus. Noting that, in order for our students to understand the laws, they must first be educated, but that education comes in many forms.

“Education occurs when we challenge those theories that are handed to us,” Becker said.

Many people in today’s society believe everything that is handed to them, which is why there is a free speech versus hate speech debate happening daily. However, according to Becker, these things must be challenged if we are to ever understand the line that is drawn between them.

“We live in a climate that renders civil discordant discourse and debate really, really difficult and challenging,” Becker said. “I really believe that our hope for survival is going to depend on robust animation of the free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. I believe that with all my heart, not just as a professional civil rights lawyer, but on a personal level.”

She went on to say that it is human nature to want to shut down the person shouting something that is the opposition of our beliefs. If someone said that the sky was purple and the popular consensus was that it was blue, it is natural to call the opposition crazy and want it silenced. However, Becker pauses to note that this is free speech, and while it may seem to be “wrong” based on the current belief system, that does not make it the enemy.

“Free speech is not the enemy here, and I think whenever we react, when the first thing we attack is the free speech, we are really losing a lot of opportunities to effectively confront the hatred or the malice or whatever is fueling those comments,” Becker said. “The cure is not less speech; it’s more speech.”

She repeatedly stated that in order to combat this idea that free speech is bad, there needs to be more discussions about what free speech actually entails, ones without emotionally-charged meanings behind it where logic and intelligence can be heard.

Following her few minutes to speak was Ronald M. Berkman, president emeritus and trustees’ professor of Cleveland State University. Berkman reflected on the words of a former president of Harvard University, Derek Bok.

“‘[Bok] said, ‘If colleges were truly providing effective civic education, one would also expect that the massive increase in the number ‘college America,’ educated Americans, since World War II would have raised the level of political knowledge among young people.” Berkman said. “[However,] many [people] cite a number of studies that demonstrate that young people’s understanding, today, of civic discourse of politics is no greater than that of high school graduates in the 1940s.”

If this is truly the case, as Berkman quotes it to be, does that not beg the question then, that our universities are failing us as students to educate their charges on what it means to have civil discourse. Are they not educating and giving students the toolkits to defend their own liberties?

According to Michael Schwartz, president emeritus and trustees’ professor of Cleveland State University, and last panelist, the university should be providing students with those toolkits, as he suggests through quoting former president of Dartmouth College, James O. Freedman.

“If we are doing our job well, then we are providing [students] with all of the equipment, all of the necessary intellectual equipment to deal with [free speech issues], with more speech and [their] ability to write about it should be a great asset to [them] for the rest of [their] live[s],” Schwartz said, quoting Freedman. “We are giving [them] the tools to defend [their] own liberties.”

All of these points essentially say the same thing: Hate speech is free speech, and it is up to the universities and educators of the next generation to equip their children with the knowledge and intellect to argue their ideals and theories amidst it all.

Hate speech is often defined as speech that intends to insult, offend or intimidate a person because of a trait such as race, religion, sexual orientation, nationality or disability.

However, one could argue that anyone’s opinion that is in disagreement with another could be pointed at and labeled hate speech on the basis of the aforementioned traits. With that in mind, all the panelists have suggested that education and challenging the “normal” train of thought with questions is the way to combat the arguments that stem around labeling things as hate speech.

All of them agreed that more speech and intellectual conversations are the way to work through this difficult topic and the way to solve issue, not by limiting speech because they may seem offensive.

Becker pointed out that no person could pass a scrutiny test, and that each person would be guilty of some type of hate speech, based purely on the biases they grew up with.

Students in the audience echoed that sentiment as they opened up about whether or not they felt as though they were able to challenge ideas in classes if a professor could not check their own biases at the door. One student even claimed that, as a whole, America needs to better their educational systems because of how uneducated the students we produce are.

“We produce some of the stupidest people in the world,” a student in the audience claimed.

While not vocally agreeing in that moment, based on their prior statements, all three panelists agreed that the education system must be changed if anything is ever going to be done in terms of educating people on what free speech really is.

Becker specifically stated early that evening that the issue with shutting down the people who want to talk about differing opinions, about shutting down free speech, is that now the focus is shifted to something other than the root of the problem. Instead of talking about the why behind the voices, the racial or sexual biases that are occurring and how to fix those, the conversation is now changed to censorship.

Overall, the panel seemed to have a clear message on what can be done to foster free speech and what needs to change in order for it to be more widely talked about in an intellectual setting.