Joshua Johnson — host of NPR’s “1A” — navigated the issue of free speech on college campuses, and how to encourage free dialogue while also maintaining a comfortable and safe environment for students, at a live taping of his show Thursday night. The panel discussion “Speak Freely: Debating the First Amendment in a Changing America” was co-sponsored by Michigan Radio and Wallace House, a fellowship program for journalists at the University of Michigan, and drew hundreds of people to Rackham Auditorium.      


Johnson, a journalist for the show that focuses on politics, policy and technology daily, sat down with a panel featuring University faculty members Angela Dillard and Faith Sparr, who teach in the Departments of Afroamerican and African Studies and Communications Studies, respectively, as well as Rackham student Maximillian Alvarez and LSA senior Jesse Arm.    


The conversation started with the panelists responding to the question of how universities should respond to controversial far-right personalities, such as white supremacist Richard Spencer, and whether universities are obligated to host these speakers. In October, Spencer requested to speak at the University without invitation, and after a lengthy negotiation process, the University announced in January Spencer would not be speaking this semester, though they would offer him potential dates to speak once the semester is over.


Dillard acknowledged the University’s legal obligation of protecting free speech, but said people must acknowledge “the idea that we would have such a divisive, potentially dangerous person… and how disruptive that might be on our campus to the real work of our campus.”  


“It is not something that the University of Michigan is at one mind about,” Dillard said.


After brief discussion, the conversation’s focus quickly shifted to whether conservative thoughts are attacked on campus. Arm is the co-chairman of the American Enterprise Institute’s Michigan Executive Council, a public policy think tank responsible for bringing controversial social scientist Charles Murray to campus earlier this year. Arm stressed how professors are given the ability to “teach policy as if it’s a matter of fact” and said academically, he has faced adverse consequences for his conservative views.


“Grade retribution problems exist,” he said.


Continuing, Arm criticized the degree to which professors expressed their personal political opinions in the classroom, especially during the 2016 presidential election.


“You had University professors openly endorsing one candidate … in their classrooms and pushing their agenda,” Arm said.


Arm said he thought the most effective mechanism in combatting controversial speakers like Spencer on campus was not by denying them a place to speak but by not showing up to their event.    


Alvarez refuted Arm’s claim, questioning the legitimacy of the narrative that conservative viewpoints were being attacked in the classroom, saying instead they were being challenged as all ideas should be in a university setting, and alluded to the issue of conservative victimization.


“This kind of narrative of conservative victimization is actually feeding the very thing we are trying to fight against, and … gives dangerous people a protective blanket to come in here with their violent supporters under the banner of free speech,” he said.


Alvarez continued, saying Spencer’s potential presence would inevitably attract other white supremacists and hate groups to campus, creating a dangerous environment.     

Johnson soon sparked a discussion regarding Murray’s talk at the University in October. Murray is a libertarian political scientist whose controversial book “The Bell Curve”, which draws connections between race and intelligence, is denounced by many other academics as racist.


Along with AEI, Arm thought hosting Murray on campus would bring students from both sides of the aisle together and begin a dialogue. Instead, Arm claimed protesters at the event made a deliberate effort to shun Murray by turning off the lights during his speech and projecting the words “White Supremacist” on the wall behind the speaker. Arm saw the events that transpired as evidence of the attack on conservative views on the University’s campus. The day after the event, the New York Times published an op-ed authored by Arm of his response to the protesters.


Alvarez, who was a leading protester at the event, refuted the claim that protesters inhibited Murray from expressing his ideas. However, Alvarez stressed while protesters gave Murray an opportunity to speak, it was important to shed light on the absurdity of Murray’s viewpoints.


“Murray’s pseudo-scholarship has been rebutted and defamed for decades,” Alvarez said.  


LSA junior Anna Horton later said she identified with Arm’s struggle to express conservative views in the classroom.


“I can say from a recent discussion with a professor that our views are not necessarily welcomed,” she said.


Anthony Borden, a founding member of Progressives at EMU, discussed his concerns with Spencer and other controversial conservative speakers coming to speak on campus.


“If you are inciting violence, your free speech should not be protected,” he said.


An audience member inquired about the intersection — or lack thereof — between freedom of speech, social media and fake news. Johnson mentioned his disdain for the phrase “fake news.”


“I hate the term fake news, because if it’s fake, it’s not news,” Johnson said.


Sparr added that in current climate, it is important to be cognizant of the media audiences consume.  


“We have to be savvier consumers of news,” Sparr said. “We have to be more critical.”


To end the Q&A portion of Thursday’s discussion, Johnson reflected on the role the media plays in finding consensus among contentious issues such as free speech.


“In terms of consensus, I feel like … I think that’s partly our job as journalists,” he said.
“That’s why I’m so worried about the health of the Fourth estate and the ability of journalism to be a trusted pillar of democracy. …You don’t get to pick your facts.”


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