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Society & Culture - Campus & Community

Free Speech Forum Comes to Drexel’s Campus

April 11, 2016

A poster for the Free Speech Forum being hosted by Drexel's Pennoni Honors College.

Nowhere is free speech in the spotlight as much as it is on the campuses of the nation’s institutions of higher learning. Integral to academia, some now wonder whether speech is under attack, while others feel there may be too much protection for abusive or hateful language.

Discussions have been raised surrounding incidents stretching from the University of Missouri to Wheaton College to Yale, and it seems that issues will continue to crop up well into the future. 

On April 21, Drexel University’s Pennoni Honors College and Center for Cultural Media will host a special forum discussing these matters while also trying to parse what the future could hold for free speech as a whole in higher education.

“We hope to get people to think and, as a result, to be better able to discuss the differences in their views on free speech,” said Pennoni Dean Paula Marantz Cohen. “From my experience, people tend to align themselves very rigidly on one side or the other without considering that this is not a simple subject, so much depends on context. Even if you don’t agree with the other side, it’s helpful to realize where that side is coming from.”

Called “Free Speech on the College Campus,” the event is part of the 2016 Smart Set Forum, the first in a series of public discussions taking its name from the online magazine produced by the Pennoni Honors College. The forum will run from 3:30–8 p.m. in Mandell Theater on Drexel’s campus.

Two prominent speakers will be featured in the forum: Camille Paglia, a prominent cultural commentator, author and University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia; and Laura Beth Nielsen, a noted feminist, professor of Sociology and director of the Center for Legal Studies at Northwestern University.

College campuses provide a special lens and, thus, challenge for issues of free speech, according to Nielsen. 

“There has not been a Supreme Court case about free speech for more than a decade although there is activity at the district and appellate levels, along with all the controversies we read about in the news,” she explained. “Doctrinally, I think we know where we stand on hate speech codes. It’s working them out in the day-to-day incidents that arise on college campuses that remains a challenge.”

A forum like this now is important because Paglia believes the risks to protected speech have increased recently. 

“Free speech, a foundational American value, has been increasingly threatened or compromised on college campuses over the past 35 years,” Paglia said. “What forces are at work in this phenomenon, and how can they be countered or reversed?”

Those questions will be addressed in the forum as they examine topics such as trigger warnings, monitored speech and, overall, where lines can be drawn separating sensitivity from censorship.

“Pennoni is a college that is open to lively, in-depth discourse,” Marantz Cohen said. “We believe in hearing all sides of an issue and letting our students come to their own conclusions. I think that this reflects the Drexel philosophy, as well.”

Those interested in attending the forum can RSVP here.

Media Contact:

Frank Otto