Approximately 15 University of Michigan students gathered Thursday night in East Quad Residence Hall to participate in a round table bipartisan discussion on the importance and limitations of free speech on college campuses.
LSA sophomore Carlos Owens facilitated the discussion by asking participants questions relating to free speech — from campus to society as a whole. LSA senior Joshua Strup, president of the Michigan Political Union, which co-hosted the event, said he believes public universities should not be able to place limits on free speech on college campuses.
“Yes, on a private campus, whether it be the Ivy Leagues or religious institutions like Notre Dame or (Brigham Young University), you can have a code of conduct for your students that says, ‘We are a private institution; by coming here, you will follow this code of conduct to your speech,’ ” Strup said. “Whereas at the University, since it is a public institution, it’s funded by, and the constraints are placed by Congress, throughout our history, by all government-funded institutions, the University has no place to say what is or not allowed, and quite frankly, the president needs to stay the hell out of it.”
Currently, the University has a free speech policy outlines the commitment to protect the freedom of expression of students and faculty.
The panel featured members from across the political spectrum. LSA junior William Presley said he believes there is no such thing as free speech, but merely speech that liberals find offensive.
“I take issue with the general use of the term ‘hate speech,’ ” said Presley. “There is no hate speech; there are only ideas. So there are some ideas that are not popular, that people don’t like, and they can call it hate speech, but in reality, speech is speech and we can’t ban something as hateful because we deem those ideas to be unpopular.”
However, not everyone agreed with Presley’s definition of hate speech: LSA junior Mateusz Borowiecki said it perpetuates harmful norms in society.
“We believe in certain things here. For example, we believe in not oppressing other groups with harmful speech and speech that reinforces existing hierarchies,” said Borowiecki. “So when we say we’re offended, it’s not saying my feelings are hurt, it’s saying that you’re saying speech perpetuating harmful hierarchies in our society.”
The group also discussed how President-elect Donald Trump’s election will affect free speech and party polarity across the country in the upcoming years. Though the Michigan Political Union is a bipartisan group, only one student voiced support for Trump over the course of the meeting. However, LSA sophomore Weston Nicholson, co-chair of the American Enterprise Institute Executive Council at the University, said even though he is not a Trump supporter, he is optimistic that the presidency will open up discussions regarding free speech across the nation.
“So, Republicans are really good at saying, ‘hey, we’re all in this together, let’s all move forward together, we’re all Americans,’ ” Nicholson said. “It seems like Democrats are really good at putting people into specific groups: ‘You’re Black, you’re white, you’re gay, you’re straight, you’re Muslim, you’re Christian, you’re this and that,’ and what happens is they fight each other. So, on the topic of free speech, and I learned this from a feminist from DC, it’s not just my opinion, it’s going to get better as far as opening up.”