University Senate debates free speech resolution

The Senate didn’t vote, but supporters and critics came to voice their opinions.

Jessica Hart

As the University of Minnesota Senate readies to consider a resolution to expand free speech protections, some students have voiced concern over its impact.

The resolution — drafted by the Faculty Consultative Committee — consists of recommendations for the University to expand free speech. The senate did not take action on the resolution at its last session of the semester, and several students protested at a meeting on May 5.

While those who support the document say it is a necessary protection of free expression, others have concerns with a core principle regarding whether the University should regulate free speech based on the speaker’s perceived “power.”

The University Senate didn’t intend to vote on the resolution at the session, but wanted to spur a discussion surrounding the idea of free speech, said Catherine French, Vice Chair of the University and Faculty Senate.

“There needs to be a broader input on the document, and it’s put out there as a talking point to generate feedback,” French said.

The resolution calls for five main actions: fostering the value of free speech, encouraging respectful debate, protecting speech from disruption, creating a free speech advocate and establishing protections for those subject to investigation.

“Most people believe that they support free speech,” Carpenter said. “But the rubber meets the road when it comes to speech you really, strongly disagree with. Everyone supports speech they agree with.”

Concern over “core principles” and the drafting process

At the University Senate meeting, the recommendations and the core principles were discussed, French said.

The four main principles state the University should protect free speech; speech that may be interpreted as offensive, uncivil or hateful has protections; University officials should not regulate who can speak based perceptions of individuals’ power; and free speech should be “paramount” when it conflicts with University values.

Council of Graduate Students President Nicholas Goldsmith and incoming spokesperson Jonathan Borowsky said their group has concerns with the third principle, which says University officials shouldn’t regulate speech based on perceived power.

“A lot of students, graduates and undergraduates, read this document, and because of the way it was written, it seemed like an assault,” Borowsky said.

In an April 2015 statement, COGS responded to the core principles by saying, “It remains controversial, in law and political ethics, whether special consideration should be afforded to the speech of those with less power or access to the institutional media of communication.”

Professional Student Government president Max Hall said his group had concerns with the second and third principles, but supports the overall movement to protect free speech.

Carpenter said he thinks many people misunderstand what the principles mean and what the U.S. Constitution authorizes.

In addition to concern over the principles, Borowsky said he also had concerns over the drafting process of the documents. While COGS and PSG were consulted in the beginning, he said, he felt there was a lack of collaboration.

“If we make a free speech statement or something like that, it should really be a democratic document,” Borowsky said. “It should be something that comes out of lots of different sectors of communities, students, faculty, staff, people … rather than being one guy’s project.”

In response, Carpenter said, “[Students should] stop complaining about the process and start making suggestions. Everybody is welcome, this is the process.”

The process 

Other schools, like the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Chicago, have implemented similar policies protecting free speech.

At the University of Minnesota, concerns regarding a lack of protected free speech on campus prompted Carpenter and his colleagues to write the resolution, he said.

In February, some students protested an event featuring conservative speaker Milo Yiannopolous.

“It was at that point that we saw there was a climate developing in which people believed it was appropriate to shut down others’ speech just because they were offended by it,” Carpenter said. “And we had to stand for the principle that that is not true; that people have a right to be offensive at a university that is public.”