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Students across the political divide reflect on freedom of speech amid tense campus climate

Liberal, conservative students on when freedom of speech matters most

From the Newsstands: This story appeared in The Eagle's April 2022 print edition. You can find the digital version here

Abby Daniels is used to her peers’ scoffs when she expresses an opinion in class; she is well aware that a majority of the student body at American University disagrees with what she has to say.

Daniels, a senior in the School of Public Affairs, is the president of the Network of Enlightened Women at AU, an organization intended to empower politically conservative women. 

Legally, the First Amendment of the Constitution protects freedom of speech on college campuses. SPA professor Lara Schwartz, director of the Project on Civil Discourse, calls this campus free speech “protected speech,” as viewpoints cannot be discriminated against.

Schwartz said she is a proponent of free speech regardless of one’s political leanings. The Project on Civil Discourse advocates for the understanding of speech as more than just legal protections and is currently studying free speech culture at AU. The project aims to provide students a space to listen and be heard by offering facilitated discussions on various political topics.

“I believe in free speech because I don't think that when you give the power to punish and censor to people it ever works out well for justice,” Schwartz said.

While free speech does have these legal protections, there are also informal factors that influence the environment of free speech. Schwartz and members of the Project on Civil Discourse said free speech, especially on college campuses, is also about the responsibilities, values and opportunities that come along with it. 

“It’s important to understand something about the people that we're in community with and the concerns that they have so that when we're talking to one another and listening to one another, we're seeing where they're coming from,” Schwartz said. 

Yet, some students say they have not seen the informal side of free speech supported.

“Rather than engage in good faith conversations or in positive dialogues, people would rather just shout out the things that they hear that they know to be true, or they think are true,” said Austin Harrison, vice president of AU College Republicans.

If students on a campus do not practice the informal side of supporting free speech, Schwartz said it could lead to self-censorship.

Some students said they choose not to speak up in class because they expect their views to be discredited.

“I don't even bring up my own point of view because the person before me was just bashing it,” said Noah Burke, the president of AUCR. “It becomes tiring to just consistently have to back up your viewpoints. Not just arguing for your point, but, like, arguing for it being valid reasoning.”

The fear of speaking out can stifle civil discourse on campus. Daniels said she feels a sense of pressure from the left-leaning majority at AU.

“There’s this inclination to keep your mouth shut because as a conservative, that’s the vibe that we get in a lot of these conversations, and it’s unfortunate,” Daniels said. She added that although she feels there are social pressures that accompany her political views, she has never experienced direct hostility.

On the other side of the political spectrum, some left-leaning students at AU say their beliefs have both been supported and challenged in the classroom and with fellow students. 

“As an individual, I've had experiences on campus and people also being supportive, but just as much as people being dismissive,” said Eduarda Serafim, a senior in School of International Service and president of the Young Democratic Socialists of America at AU. 

Whitney Powers, a junior in SPA and president of AU College Democrats, said members of the club debated AUCR years ago, but current members are “adamantly against” the idea now. She said she feels that the AU student body upholds the values of free speech in campus discourse. 

One political controversy occurred in October 2021, when the AUCR hosted U.S. Rep. Chip Roy as the first installment of their Congressional Series of the year. The event drew attention from students because of Roy's use of language on the House floor in 2021 that celebrated lynching.

“It’s just some stances, especially with AUCR bringing in Chip Roy last semester,” Powers said. “That was really a big, big point for a lot of our members that we’re not going to work with someone who’s pro-lynching. I think that’s where that line was drawn.”

Harsha Mudaliar, a senior in SPA and program coordinator for the Project on Civil Discourse, said if students do not speak up in class because of possible conflict, it can impact the civil discourse on campus as diverse viewpoints will not be discussed. 

“It’s helpful to have a space where you’re allowed to question that or say that you’re not sure about something, and sit there and listen to others and see what they have to say,” Mudaliar said. 

Led by Mudaliar, members of the Project on Civil Discourse are researching how and why AU students may choose to hold back from participating in class and what specific factors may be inhibiting them. 

“We want to develop a guide that tells AU what they can do to help students feel more comfortable speaking, and that’ll be based on student perspectives as well as their own perspectives and observations,” Mudaliar said. “Hopefully it’ll be something the University can put into practice.”

But with the informal responsibilities that come with the freedom of speech, there are ways students can help support civil discourse on campus. One way to do so is to listen to understand rather than rebut during discussion, Schwartz said. 

“You're going to listen with the assumption that the person is trying to make themselves clear. Not coming from a bad place,” Schwartz said.

Serafirm said she wants to see a speech culture at AU that doesn’t have “black and white beliefs,” where there is always a right and a wrong. 

“I think it'd be nice to have a culture to be like okay, we have different opinions, like I can disagree with that and I can rephrase my disagreements with it, but not phrasing in a way this is incorrect,” Serafim said.

With this, students say they want a better culture around speech on campus that fosters this discourse.

“I would like to see a culture where we care about each other, not just what each other thinks, what our opinions are on certain things, because that matters,” Harrison said. “But what matters more is that we just care about each other on a fundamental level, right, that we want to see the best for each other.”

zbell@theeagleonline.com and aturner@theeagleonline.com


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