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Professors discuss free speech, productive dialogue at University Life Forum

Professors discussed what defines free speech, its repercussions, and the difference between offensive and harmful dialogue at an event hosted by Executive Vice President for University Life Suzanne B. Goldberg and the Office of University Life on Tuesday night.  

Goldberg, who noted that the forum was not a standard academic panel, but rather a discussion fueled by audience participation, said she aimed to address how the University community handles controversial ideas in the current political climate.

Free speech has traditionally played a prominent role in campus-wide conversations, as the University prides itself on its commitment to upholding free speech values. University President Lee Bollinger is a First Amendment scholar who has discussed on several occasions the difficulties involved in protecting free speech in a community with diverse views.

In her opening remarks, Goldberg noted the challenges of maintaining free speech at a university where students have to both take class and live together.

“In our society, there is intense disagreement about a wide range of issues. In the rest of the world, we are in a position where we can say, ‘Okay, I disagree with you. I don’t have to talk to you,’” Goldberg said. “We are here today to think about free speech in a community where we have to coexist.”

Philosophy professor Akeel Bilgrami began the discussion with his thoughts on the tension between freedom of speech and the constraints placed on that freedom by ideals of accountability.

“On the one hand, there is a demand on the part of many students for a curbing of hate speech, the curbing of civil speech that has submerged in it, microaggressions, and the creation of ‘safe spaces’ for historically oppressed groups,” Bilgrami said. “On the other side, however, there is the insistence that if these demands are ratified, there will be a curbing of freedom of inquiry and of the personalities of pedagogues, researchers, and students who seek to know.”

Bilgrami’s remarks were used as a starting point for a conversation of feedback and commentary from the audience. As audience members discussed the two opposing views Bilgrami presented, the conversation soon centered around the concept of ostracism as it relates to free speech.

Some audience members voiced opinions in favor of uncensored free speech, claiming that the administration should abstain from getting involved in controversial debates. But others argued that the administration has a responsibility to protect students who feel harmed in certain situations.

Journalism professor Alisa Solomon discussed the importance of the intent behind the conversations an individual chooses to engage others in, and presented the audience with questions she thought would be useful to consider in potentially challenging conversations.

“Ask yourself what is actually in dispute. What are you really arguing about? If you peel back enough layers, you might find you agree on something fundamental, you just disagree on how to get to that fundamental thing,” Solomon said. “Then ask yourself, ‘What am I trying to do here?’ Persuade? Provoke? Enflame? Shut someone else down?”

The forum ended with Solomon remarking on empathy and the central role that it plays in how the community handles controversial conversations.

“Listening and empathy are interconnected, but empathy isn’t easy. It’s not a Kumbaya sort of thing; it takes work,” Solomon said.

olivia.baker@columbiaspectator.com | @ColumbiaSpec

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