The Student Union Building ballrooms flooded with talk of civil rights, exchanging ideas, Milo Yiannopoulos and Chick-fil-A Monday evening, as the University of New Mexico Faculty Senate hosted a panel discussion to dissect free speech and its role at the University.
The event intended to “raise more awareness about free speech rights on campus...and also the cross section of free speech and civil discourse and civility,” panelist and Dean of Students Nasha Torrez said during an interview with the Daily Lobo. “So, in more simple terms, your constitutional rights to say what you want to say and not being a jerk while you do it — hopefully.”
Other panelists included: Medical Director for the bachelor’s in Emergency Medical Services undergraduate program and lecturer Coffee Brown, Associate Professor of American Studies Jennifer Denetdale, Anderson School of Management Associate Professor Nick Flor, Director of Peace and Justice Studies and Africana Studies faculty member Jamal Martin and Psychology Associate Professor Geoffrey Miller.
The event began as the panelists gave their pre-generated responses to questions they were shown before the event. Then a Q&A session opened the floor to the audience.
The discussion touched on a variety of topics, including political and ideological divisiveness as well as defining violence and hate speech.
Political party biases may be present, but ultimately, both groups want similar outcomes, but they may have different approaches for achieving them, according to Flor.
For Denetdale, right and left-wing interests were not as important as “the kind of structures we see that perpetuate sustained violence.”
Miller said it is important to define violence clearly.
“There’s a tendency for anti-free speech advocates to interpret any offensive remarks as verbal violence or verbal assault...That’s extremely dangerous to water down the concept of physical violence and to call anything you don’t like violence. If you do that, the First Amendment becomes meaningless, because anything offensive immediately becomes assault,” he said.
When it comes to systems that sponsor structural violence, Martin said the idea of violence and speech may be more complex.
“It has to be a much broader concept than ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, and words will never hurt me,’ because they will at some point, because words are allowed to be (the) basis of policies and procedures,” Martin said.
Flor said there should be no limitations on free speech outside of the Constitution, because disagreements help us learn.
People with hateful ideas must be allowed to speak — if someone is spreading false information, the audience will hear the argument’s flaws, and intelligent people can argue against them, he said.
Denetdale, who is part of the Navajo Nation, brought up the Yiannopoulos presentation that occurred January of 2017.
“(He was) vomiting hate, xenophobia, sexism,” she said, adding that she’s experienced this type of free speech all her life and later gave examples of what she considers hate speech, such as people calling her racial slurs.
“When do we stop turning away? When do we say something about it?...It’s not about a debate or a dialogue. It’s about saying, ‘I’m not gonna put up with (this), and I’ve had enough of it,’” she said.
The term, “hate speech,” has no legal meaning in the U.S., Miller said, adding that he has never been involved in a discussion where the term made the conversation more rational or productive.
“I hate the term, ‘hate speech...’ It basically just means speech I find highly offensive...That means it’s very much in the eye of the beholder...To me the worst hate speech on campus is right outside this door — it’s the advertising for Chick-fil-A, because I’m an affected altruist, I’m concerned about animal welfare...Now, I could call that advertising hate speech, but it wouldn’t advance the dialogue.”
We cannot write policies concerning hate speech, because it is too difficult to define, Flor said.
However, other countries have documents that define what hate speech is, such as the incitement of violence and discrimination, Martin said.
Although hate speech is protected, it could result in students not feeling welcome or safe and could lead to them leaving the University, Torrez said. When they use the word “safe,” it does not always refer to physical safety.
Brown asked the panel what they should say to students who are leaving UNM because their feelings were hurt — and if it would be different if hate speech were directed at them for being transgender and/or being upset about chickens killed by Chick-fil-A.
Torrez clarified that chickens are not protected by public law, but there are groups of people who are protected based on historic disparity.
“There’s a difference between a student saying, ‘My feelings are hurt’ and a student feeling stalked (or harassed) on the Internet,” because it could impact the way they learn, she said.
Vivianne Gonzalez-Fernandez, the former president of Young Americans for Liberty and current fourth year psychology and philosophy major at UNM, attended the event.
She was part of the initial process of inviting Yiannopoulos to campus. YAL later gave the task to UNM College Republicans after YAL’s national branch recommended that Yiannopoulos not be attached to the organization, she said.
Inviting Yiannopoulos to campus is within students’ rights, Torrez said. There are some regulations on how University space is used, but UNM cannot control the content.
She suggested that if students would like to invite a controversial speaker, other students should invite a different speaker with different views to create “a well-rounded discourse.”
“Anything can be controversial. It’s all a matter of opinion. That is why it’s ridiculous to ban someone or to shut down someone just because you don’t agree with their opinions,” Gonzalez-Fernandez said, adding, “just because you invite someone doesn’t mean that you agree with one hundred percent of what they’re saying...You just agree with allowing them to say what they need to say.”
People benefit from sharing ideas, Torrez said.
“Free speech is absolutely pivotal to an educational environment functioning...It’s just important for people to remember that your words have power and to be thoughtful and mindful of how they’re impacting others. Just because you can say everything that comes to mind doesn’t mean you have to,” she said.
In an interview with the Daily Lobo, Denetdale said she hopes people who attended the event understand that “we are in the American landscape right now, in a place where people’s civil liberties are severely constrained and that freedom of speech does not extend to everyone.”
Panels like these make her “exhausted by having to talk about these issues, because they are a part of my life...We all have a responsibility and a moral and ethical responsibility to each other, and (asking about) the possibility of justice and liberation. Some of us can’t even imagine what that is,” she said.
“(Free speech) is the price we pay to hear everybody else’s opinion...the price we pay for liberty...The moment we take away free speech is the moment everybody loses,” Gonzalez-Fernandez said.
“The problem is not that we disagree, but that we do it badly...The purpose of free speech is to enable us to work together to make the country work, and when we use the facade of free speech to tear the country apart, then we’re using the words to destroy the ideas,” Brown said. “In my mind, that would be a horrible mistake.”
Elizabeth Sanchez is the editor-in-chief at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @Beth_A_Sanchez.