Dean of Students Nasha Torrez hosted a panel on free speech rights on Wednesday in the SUB Atrium.
The event was hosted in the wake of major pushback from UNM community members over controversial speaker Milo Yiannopoulos, as well as a report filed by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, stating that parts of UNM’s speech code violated the First Amendment.
The panel featured Greg Williams, an attorney who specializes in free expression laws, Martin Esquivel, an attorney who specializes in media law and is also an expert on free speech, Eliza Bechtold, the legal director for ACLU New Mexico and Debbie Morris, the Student Activities Center director.
The event was well attended, with many people standing around the atrium and on the stairs to listen to the panel. Quite a few attendees stayed after the event to ask the speakers additional questions.
Torrez said she hopes the event will incite people to think about their rights and how to use them.
“I thought the basics of ‘what is free speech’ would be really powerful for people,” she said. “In this day and age you see students organizing around different issues and understanding the basics of what the Constitution says about freedom of expression and their ability to protest and organize. I thought it would be a very powerful toolkit for them to have.”
Torrez said the panel was also organized because students and community members have been contacting her with a lot of concerns about Yiannopoulos’ speaking engagement.
“At first they thought that we were sponsoring the speaker on the 27th and when they realized we weren’t sponsoring him, and then they’ve been very upset that he’s allowed to come,” she said.
The panelists explained the definition of free speech.
Esquivel said it’s a law that can make people uncomfortable, but that it’s important to prevent the majority from deciding what’s right and what’s wrong. Bechtold said it’s dangerous to allow the government to decide what viewpoints should and shouldn’t be allowed in the public sphere.
Williams said a public university such as UNM is an arm of the state, which restricts what limitations can be placed on free speech. Esquivel said speech cannot be banned based on content or on an expectation of what a speaker will say.
“Universities have traditionally always been considered a bastion of First Amendment rights for the primary reason of academic freedom — the ability of teachers and students to learn different viewpoints,” Esquivel said.
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Bechtold shared the ACLU’s position on the line between free speech and hate speech; she said when a specific individual is targeted with the purpose of harassment, First Amendment protections no longer apply.
Williams, Esquivel and Bechtold all said the best way to combat someone using their First Amendment rights to espouse hatred is by utilizing your own free speech rights.
“To those who are concerned about racial injustice, and misogyny and xenophobia: become an activist,” Bechtold said.
“The way to respond is to ignore the guy, or make your own speech so loud and so direct and so opposite of what he’s saying that your own speech carries the day,” Williams said.
One audience member asked if the additional security fee that UNM is charging Young Americans for Liberty to host Yiannopoulos was unconstitutional.
In response, Williams said an extra fee based on a viewpoint is illegal, but a fee based on practical costs is legal.
Several audience members asked about Yiannopoulos’ visit in relation to the University’s policies, but the speakers reiterated the statements they made about the inability to restrict speech based on content, unless there is a direct threat.
UNM student Vivianne Gonzalez said she is glad the panel happened because she wants people on both sides of issues to express their opinions, and doesn’t think people should be shut down.
Gonzalez said she will be volunteering at the Yiannopoulos event Friday and used to be involved in the student group that is hosting it.
UNM student Sierra Ludington said the free speech panel was productive and useful.
“I’m gaining a better understanding of First Amendment rights, but they didn’t answer my question about if a student is directly harassed, can the event be stopped — and that’s one of my major concerns still,” she said.
This was the first in a speaking series being put together by the Dean of Students Office, Torrez said. The next event, which will be held in March around Cesar Chavez’s birthday, will focus on how to organize around issues you’re passionate about, she said.
Cathy Cook is a news reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Cathy_Daily.