MTSU free speech panel discusses First Amendment restrictions on college campuses

MTSU Free Speech Panel members Joseph Cohn, Jayla Jackson, Ken Paulson and Laura Kipnis discussed free speech on college campuses on Oct. 25, 2016. Photo by Joshua Tilton/ Contributing Writer

Story and photo by Joshua Tilton / Contributing Writer

On Tuesday, a panel at MTSU addressed free speech, fielded questions and courted controversy as members of the panel discussed the limitations of free speech on college campuses across the United States.

The panel was composed of Ken Paulson, Dean of MTSU’s College of Mass Communication, Joseph Cohn, legislative and policy director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Laura Kipnis, Northwestern University communications professor and MT10 journalist Jayla Jackson.

Kipnis was recently accused of Title IX violations due to her article in “The Chronicle of Higher Education.” The article, which criticized Northwestern University’s decision to ban student-teacher relationships, incited backlash that led to protests and an eventual lawsuit by two Northwestern graduate students.

“I wrote an article,” Kipnis said. “I didn’t sexually assault someone.”

Kipnis also reported being subjected to “secret tribunals” comprised of Northwestern officials to determine whether the accusations were legitimate.

Afterwards, Kipnis was ordered to not publicize the trials “under threat of retaliation.” Her follow-up article criticized the response, prompting hundreds of emails from fellow professors who had been asked to keep similar tribunals quiet. Kipnis was later cleared of all charges, but the extended power of Title IX restrictions prompted agreements from the other members of the panel.

“Overbroad harassment regulations are the number one cause for censorship on campuses around the U.S.,” Cohn said. Cohn clarified that Title IX was a vital statute enacted by Congress but was not intended to censor free speech.

Cohn turned the conversation toward the importance of protecting free speech, including hate speech protected under the First Amendment.

“Even vile speech isn’t enough to require legal action,” Cohn said. “That’s why you can burn the American flag, and someone like Colin Kaepernick can kneel during the national anthem.”

Paulson added that “the land of the free has become the home of the easily offended.”

The topic of hate speech prompted the discussion of free speech zones on college campuses. Originally introduced on college campuses to provide space for peaceful protests, Cohn was quick to point out how universities had subverted that intention and limited free expression in those areas.

Paulson, a First Amendment expert, defended offensive speech as vital to the survival of the United States.

“Some of the most strident and offensive speech has changed the course of the nation,” Paulson said, pointing to Martin Luther King’s march at Selma, Ala.

“If free speech zones exist on campus, I suggest you ignore them,” added Paulson.

During the Q&A session following the discussion, however, Paulson took a different standpoint.

MTSU Talented Tenth, an organization that is staging silent protests this week in recognition of the Black Lives Matter movement, was in attendance at the panel. After a sit-in at the library on Monday, the group was asked to leave for not being in a designated area for protest.

The issue was resolved quietly, but the group was eager to ask the panel whether this was a violation of free speech. Having discussed the situation, Paulson admitted that from a legal standpoint, the group was in the wrong.

Kipnis chimed in saying, “the courts would side [with the] library,” but Paulson noted that civil disobedience is important in inciting change.

“There has been a historically vital role that civil disobedience has played,” Paulson said.  “There’s a place for civil disobedience, and only you can decide when that is.”

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