With Empathy Comes True Exchange of Ideas on Campus, Free-Speech Panelists Say
From classroom "trigger warnings" to funding cuts for college newspapers that express politically unpopular views, the secret to salvaging free speech on campuses nationwide may be to start with empathy.
That was the message from Slate's senior editor, Dahlia Lithwick, and her fellow panelists — media personality Kelly Carlin and George Washington Law School's dean, Blake Morant ’78 — during a Thursday discussion on the embattled state of collegiate discourse, held at the University of Virginia School of Law.
The high-profile speakers kicked off the 2016 Jefferson Symposium, "Free Speech on Campus," a two-day event presented by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression and the Law School, with the support of the Howard Scripps Foundation.
Lithwick, who also serves as a contributing editor for Newsweek, cited a recent Gallup poll of college students that indicates they are strongly in favor of suppressing speech on campus if it may offend them — 69 percent think there should be speech codes that restrict slurs or offensive language, for example. Yet many of those same respondents (55 percent) said they believe their campus climate prevents them from saying things they would like to say.
"So there is an enormous conflict there, where we have students who want more restriction of speech, but feel that they are not, themselves, free to speak,” Lithwick said.
"It seems to me that that's the paradox at the heart of this conversation around free speech. That everyone wants more free speech for themselves, and wants to say exactly what they want to say on campus, but hear less and less speech that offends them."
Lithwick said those in favor of restricting speech that may be viewed as intolerant are not being unreasonable.
"What they're saying is, it isn't just speech," she said. "This is speech that leads to hateful acts, and that sometimes in itself it can be experienced as an assault."
But she acknowledged First Amendment arguments as equally valid — "that the cure for bad speech is more speech, and the way to air bad ideas is to discuss them and not suppress them."
Morant, a 1978 UVA Law alum who has had a distinguished career in higher education, said that seeking to understand viewpoints should ideally begin before a charged incident ever occurs. He said that's what he tries to do as a teacher and administrator, while stressing civility in engagement.
"We as teachers — and all of us here are teachers in one way or another — have an obligation to educate our students on not only the value of civility, but how it folds in to their ability to be persuasive," Morant said.
Carlin, who is a book author, internet radio show host and Jungian psychologist, is also the daughter of the late comedian George Carlin. Her father's controversial "seven dirty words" bit formed the basis of the U.S. Supreme Court free-speech case FCC vs. Pacifica Foundation. She said speech should push boundaries, and challenge our views of ourselves and others.
"When we can see each other, and empathize in each other's positions, we start to see our own unconscious biases, and I think that's really the conversation all of us are having here," Carlin said.
Lithwick said the media's sometimes blanket depictions of groups of people and their situations can serve to feed stereotypes rather than foster empathy. The key is to "disaggregate" each incident and view it as a unique speech problem, she said.
"It seems to me that journalists have been really complicit in turning a very, very complicated and fraught problem into a more complicated and fraught problem that is often presented in very cartoonish ways," she said. "You know, 'coddled babies on campus want another blanket,' versus 'evil white male administrators who want to continue to oppress minorities.' That's not a useful conversation, and yet it's often framed that way — and I think very much to our peril."
Lithwick and Carlin both serve on the board of the Thomas Jefferson Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan institution devoted to the defense of First Amendment rights.
Professor John C. Jeffries Jr. provided opening remarks for the discussion. The panel concluded with a question-and-answer session in which audience members also shared their opinions.