Whether the First Amendment is consistently upheld at a university that’s home to frequent strikes and political rallies depends on who you’re talking to.
To RC Philosophy Prof. Carl Cohen, the University still has a long way to go.
A controversial figure who has taught at the University for five decades, in a panel discussion on Saturday Cohen along with several of his colleagues, said that some faculty members at the University hesitate to fully exercise their First Amendment rights.
Titled Freedom of Speech in the American University, the panel discussion held at the Residential College celebrated Cohen’s 50th year at the University. Cohen said he’s never been silenced or oppressed a day in his run at the University, but added, “I’m probably one of the bolder ones.”
The day-long celebration sponsored by the RC took off with a public panel discussion on the First Amendment, led by Wayne State University Law School Dean Frank Wu, University of Virginia Law School Prof. Kim Forde-Mazrui, U.S. District Court Judge Avern Cohn and current RC senior Samantha Woll. Cohen acted as moderator for the discussion.Panelists said the importance of free speech has shaped Cohen’s five decades at the University’s Residential College, where he has worked as an activist, social commentator and popular philosophy professor since 1955.
He was opposed to the war in Vietnam in the 70s, according to RC Development Coordinator Craig Regester. That position, he added, was not a popular leaning at the time.
He is taking another controversial stance regarding affirmative action by supporting the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative. MCRI is a state ballot initiative that aims to end the use of affirmative action in Michigan.
“(Cohen is) unusually courageous to talk about affirmative action,” said panelist and RC alum Forde-Mazrui. “People that oppose it are often called racist.”
Although Cohen does not shy away from controversial positions, Cohn, one of the panelists at the event, said many faculty members ask themselves, ‘Will I get in trouble for this?’ before openly articulating certain viewpoints. “There’s a tremendous fear on campus to be labeled politically incorrect,” agreed a member of the audience.
“On the surface, we are free,” Cohen said. “But there are pressures of convention at the University that make people not speak out (about) some views.”
But some audience members argued that faculty members should abstain from voicing their opinions in order to maintain their objectivity in class. Panelists also debated if free speech should be allowed if it might offend members of the public.
Wayne State University Law School Dean Frank Wu said the rubric for approriate free speech is not if it offends the public. Instead Wu said approriate free speech would aim to create dialogue between people of opposing viewpoints.
A founder of the Residential College, Cohen embodies the RC’s commitment to debate and open dialogue, Regester said.
Two hundred and twenty three student members of a Facebook group “RC, The Residential College – the Best Thing to Happen to U-M Since Student Activism” seem to agree. They chose Cohen, as the mascot for their group, because he represents what the RC stands for.
Regester said, “Carl’s not afraid to take controversial positions. He encourages engaging controversy. The RC definitely supports that, because we all learn through it.”