Can They Really Say That? Surviving Free Speech on a College Campus

Posted on 4/19/2019 4:13:02 PM

A group of students taking a political science course about free speech has developed a campus-wide event to raise awareness about the First Amendment, and to discuss strategies for dealing with speech that is controversial or even offensive.

“Can They Really Say That? Surviving Free Speech on a College Campus” is free and open to the community, and will take place at 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday, April 24, in room 126 of the Humanities and Social Sciences Building.

The event is one of several hosted by the IUP Free Speech Project throughout this academic year in honor of IUP’s Year of Free Speech.

“Can They Really Say That?” is a roundtable-style discussion planned and coordinated by students enrolled in an upper division course on the First Amendment’s protection of the freedom of speech, taught by Gwen Torges of the Political Science Department, who is also a member of the Free Speech Project committee.

In addition to the students who will be leading the discussion, the program will include IUP President Michael Driscoll and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer and Title IX Coordinator Elise Glenn, director of the IUP Office of Social Equity.

“My students have studied the cases in which the US Supreme Court has interpreted what the First Amendment protects,” said Torges. She explained that the First Amendment has been interpreted very broadly in the United States, and protects controversial speech, including offensive speech and hate speech.

“While students appreciate the value of protecting speech with which they vehemently disagree,” said Torges, “they also know and want to formally acknowledge that hate speech can cause real harm and exacerbate divisions.”

When told that one of the assignments for the course was to plan an event related to the constitutional protection of free speech, students insisted that their event go beyond explaining that the First Amendment protects offensive speech. “They told me that they wanted to focus on helping students develop strategies for how to deal with speech that makes people uncomfortable,” Torges said. She approved the idea, and students spent many hours, both in and out of class, planning all aspects of the event, including effective ways of promoting it.

“They really want other students to take an interest,” said Torges. They’re hoping that others who have questions or concerns related to free speech will share them by sending a Tweet using #IUP1stAmendment.

More information about the Free Speech project is available on Twitter @IUPwordsmatter or on Instagram @IUPFreeSpeech.