Eagleton hosts event promoting free speech on college campuses
The Eagleton Institute of Politics Center for Youth Political Participation held the event "Pizza and Politics: Fostering Civil Dialogue on Campus" yesterday. It was headlined by Nancy Thomas, the director of Institute for Democracy & Higher Education (IDHE) at Tufts University, and Elizabeth Matto, the director of Eagleton's Center for Youth Political Participation (CYPP).
The event was put together to promote civil political discourse on campus. Students and members of the public were in the audience and helped run the discussion by adding their input. This is not the first time that "Pizza and Politics" has been held. Many campuses put together similar events, Thomas said.
Prior to the discussion, Matto talked about the aims of the Eagleton Institute of Politics, which include encouraging students to vote. Other goals of the institution include promoting a healthy dialogue among students.
“It’s more than just registering and voting. In our mind, it’s also being able to engage with each other in political discourse, and sometimes in difficult political discourse,” Matto said.
The main topic of this event was free speech on college campuses, and to what extent it should be limited, if at all, Matto said.
“It's an issue that’s important if you live on a college campus, teach on a college campus or learn on a college campus. It’s also a topic that really touches on democratic ideals,” Matto said.
A notable aspect of the discussion was the tug-of-war between free speech on campus and diversity and inclusion. Those two tenants of college life often come into conflict with each other, she said.
“On a college campus, it (free speech) is extremely important, because we want our campuses to have a robust exchange of ideas. It is the responsibility of a campus to shine a light on speech, to bring it out into the open and to allow it to be critiqued,” Matto said.
Thomas said that while free speech and the freedom to express ideas is an important aspect of college life, minority groups are protected by the law from discrimination.
“Free speech is extremely important. So is diversity and inclusion. In fact, with Title VI, VII and IX, it is illegal for a campus to support a hostile learning environment against historically marginalized groups,” Thomas said.
College students also feel that free speech and diversity are important aspects to the college experience. Yet, Matto said students in different political parties tend to place heavier importance on one or the other.
“These results tend to vary by political background. When asked, 66 percent of Democrats asserted that inclusivity was a more important value. When asked, 69 percent of Republican students surveyed identified free speech as the more important issue,” Matto said.
When those two ingrained values — the right to free speech, and protection from discrimination — are pitted against each other, the right to free speech often emerges as the victor, Thomas said.
“Where it comes out these days, and probably justifiably, is it almost always airs on the side of free speech. That is because we don’t want to go down that slippery slope,” Thomas said.
While free speech often wins out in court, there are still some limitations to it, she said.
“Speech that is not protected, is not protected because the danger is imminent and targeted. But a violent statement against a group, that is not an individual, is not illegal speech,” Thomas said.
Matto discussed the importance of political dialogue among students and how it is critical to continue similar events to engage students in the political process.
“In many ways, a healthy and vibrant democracy depends on our ability to engage with others, especially those who have different views than us. This is really an extension of our mission,” she said.
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