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Interim Vice President of Campus Life Fanta Aw testifies in front of a Senate Judiciary Committee as a part of the "Free Speech 101: The Assault on the First Amendment on College Campuses” hearing Tuesday. 

Fanta Aw testifies at Senate hearing on campus free speech

University official says free speech ‘comes with responsibility and accountability’

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday, Interim Vice President of Campus Life Fanta Aw recounted instances of controversial speech at AU and told committee members that free speech “comes with responsibility and accountability.”

The hearing, titled "Free Speech 101: The Assault on the First Amendment on College Campuses," centered around two key questions: Do universities have the right to block speakers from appearing on their campuses? If so, why and under which circumstances?

“Freedom of expression is integral to the mission of higher education,” Aw said during her testimony. “However, protecting it has become increasingly challenging in light of our national climate, changing attitudes of younger Americans about the First Amendment, and ever more diverse populations on our campuses bringing diverse perspectives and expectations into constant tension.”

The hearing also featured a law professor from the UCLA School of Law, the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center and two students who have wrestled with college administrators over free speech on campus, among others. Aw was the sole woman on the panel.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the committee chairman who called the hearing, said he was concerned that free speech was being suppressed on college campuses.

“College students vote. Not only academia, but our democracy depends on the ability to try to advocate to inform or to change minds,” Grassley said during the hearing. “When universities suppress speech, they not only damage freedom today, they establish and push norms harmful to democracy going forward.”

Though she agreed with some of Grassley’s points, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the ranking member on the committee, said the senators should focus on finding methodologies to help universities handle violent incidents surrounding free speech rather than condemning administrators or their tactics.

“I do believe that the university has a right to protect its students from demonstrations once they become acts of violence,” Feinstein said. “I hope today that there will be some discussion of when does speech become violent, and what do you do to stop that violence?”

Aw mentioned several incidents in which the free speech debate touched AU’s campus, ranging from Milo Yiannopoulos’s public appearance in April 2016 to the anti-LGBT protest led by Westboro Baptist Church members in November.

But the core of Aw’s testimony hinged on the May 1 hate crime that targeted black women and the members of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated. She said that AU draws the line when “expression has the potential to incite violence and/or is a direct threat to members of our community.”

“With the increasing frequency of such episodes, the ability of students to learn and thrive has
been severely limited,” Aw told the committee. “When students fear for their safety, this affects their ability to study and participate fully in the life of the University.”

Prior to Aw’s testimony, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) accused university administrators of becoming “complicit in functioning essentially as speech police.”

“Far too many colleges and universities quietly roll over and say, ‘Okay, [there is a] threat of violence, we will effectively reward the violent criminals and muzzle the First Amendment,’” Cruz said, referring to college administrators’ controversial decisions to cancel speaker events.

Aw said AU administrators must balance their obligations to support freedom of speech with their responsibilities to investigate crimes that are motivated by bias. She cited University policies to protect freedom of expression as well as recent changes to the student conduct code that take “bias-related motivations” into account when determining sanctions for student violations.

“In short, maintaining a commitment to our values and balance among them is complicated, and requires robust policies, as well as constant education and training,” Aw said.

Following the hearing, Aw said administrators must engage with their full constituencies, including students and faculty, when considering free speech issues. She wants conversations about freedom of expression to take into account the complexities of actually working with students, she said.

“We need to figure out what can be some incentives for students to be able to not only learn,” Aw told USA TODAY College, “but to really appreciate the full breadth of what this [free speech] could afford them, both in terms of their education and in terms of their growth as citizens.”

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