Campus panel on free speech draws scholars, students and University leaders

The Center for the Philosophy of Freedom sponsored the event, which drew 150 attendees.

The Center for the Philosophy of Freedom sponsored the event, which drew 150 attendees.

Tessa Dysart, clinical professor, James E. Rogers College of Law

Tessa Dysart, clinical professor, James E. Rogers College of Law

What is free speech, how does it work and what responsibility do universities have to protect it?

Those questions were addressed at "Free Speech on Campus," a public event at the University of Arizona featuring a panel of First Amendment scholars, presented as universities across the country continue to respond to the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas against Israel.

The event was organized by the Arizona Student Chapter of the Federalist Society and faculty of the James E. Rogers College of Law and sponsored by the Center for the Philosophy of Freedom.

The discussion drew more than 150 attendees as the panel addressed fundamental First Amendment doctrine; constitutional, statutory and policy issues impacting free speech; and the role universities should play in response to high-profile global and societal issues.

Tessa L. Dysart, clinical professor in the James E. Rogers College of Law, led the event. Featured scholars included Toni M. Massaro, Regents Professor of law; Eugene Volokh, professor of law at UCLA; and moderator Marc L. Miller, dean of the James E. Rogers College of Law.

The panel "detailed the importance of free speech as a protected right, a cornerstone of democracy and an essential part of the University of Arizona's identity as a world-class public institution," University President Robert C. Robbins said. "Protecting the open exchange of ideas and respect for diverse views illustrates our commitment to academic freedom and advances our mission to prepare students who thrive throughout their lives. I am very proud this is a strength for the University of Arizona and something we prioritize as our state's land-grant university."

Dysart said a goal of the event was "to show students that you can have a respectful, challenging conversation about complex subjects."

Fred DuVal, chair of the Arizona Board of Regents, attended the session.

"I applaud the College of Law Federalist Society and the Freedom Center for hosting this important discussion," DuVal said. "In an era marked by increasingly diverse perspectives and evolving societal norms, being mindful of First Amendment rights and free speech within college campuses is crucial."

The First Amendment: Tax law of the Constitution

Volokh described the First Amendment as the tax law of the Constitution, complex with many categories and subcategories. He also noted that free speech is broader than the First Amendment and can be affected by state laws.

"The government cannot suppress, criminalize or exclude viewpoints," he said. "Pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, pro-communist, pro-terrorist, racist, sexist, antisemitic, anti-police and anti-American viewpoints are protected."

Volokh said there are a few narrow exceptions, including true threats of illegal conduct; solicitation of crimes against particular targets; advocacy intended to and likely to produce imminent illegal conduct; personal face-to-face insults likely to start a fight; and repeated unwanted speech to a particular person. While universities must protect free speech, they can establish time, place and manner restrictions to prevent disruption of classes, instruction and student group events.

Individual judgment: As important as the law

Massaro said free speech is "only one card in a constitutional deck." It joins other protections, including freedom of religion, assembly, association, privacy, physical security and procedural due process. The complexity can create gray areas.

"The First Amendment is not a blueprint, it's a compass," she explained. "So, mind how you go."

While individuals have constitutional rights and free speech protections, she said, they should apply their values in decision-making. Just because the law says one has the right to act, it doesn't necessarily mean it is the right action. She reminded the audience and law school students that the law goes only so far, and lawyers are responsible for making recommendations that affect their clients and their careers.

"We teach them, because the law runs out, that we need students who can take things from there," Massaro said. "Students rise to the task, even during these existentially hard times."

Lessons from the response to Oct. 7

Miller led a discussion of how universities responded to the Oct. 7 attacks and, in particular, how to strike a balance between addressing societal issues and protecting academic freedom, viewpoint diversity and free speech. The wide-ranging discussion addressed campus protests, free speech on social media, doxing and other issues.  

Ultimately, the panelists agreed that speech, even what some consider hate speech, is constitutionally protected. The discussion then turned to higher education's role in the aftermath of societal events.

As a guide for institutions, the panelists cited the University of Chicago's 1967 Kalven Committee: Report on the University's Role in Political and Social Action. According to the report, "A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community."

Mary L. Rigdon, Freedom Center director and associate professor in the Department of Political Economy and Moral Science, reinforced these values.

"Academic freedom and free speech are foundational to our democracy and a vibrant university community," Rigdon said. "The University of Arizona and the Freedom Center impact society by promoting viewpoint diversity, training critical thinkers, and encouraging dialogue and debate that leads to discovery and progress."

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