With recent attacks on free speech around the nation, President Trump released a new executive order to help keep the playing field equal for all, especially at Universities which have been seen as holding a certain bias against conservative guest speakers. This order basically says all universities must follow the Constitution’s First Amendment, a with applicable federal rules and their “stated institutional policies.” This is where it got a little dicey and received a lot of criticism from the Left. The University of Minnesota took the opportunity to hold their own free speech event which was supposed to unpack this new order along with topics such as: Faculty trigger warnings, pronoun usage, former problematic guest speaker situations and social media. The keynote speaker for this event was Jane Kirtley, Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota.
As far as the general overview, the event opened with Professor Kirtley not defining anything relevant and staying extremely neutral and vague on all the issues. The questions were clearly set up in a format she preferred; she had lengthy pre-written answers for all of them. You could tell this was an event the university had thought about a lot. Kirtley did set specific boundaries for her issues. On the topic of speech and regulations, she talked about the ones that would have to create them and mentioned that they alone could not grasp a solid definition for which speech is out of line and needs to be suppressed. She later spoke about how the university is the place where all ideas should be tried and tested saying, “Any state university has an ethical responsibility to abide by this.” In between these points, the professor attempted to touch on Trump’s new order by saying that it was neither good nor bad but it was definitely redundant and vague. I found this commentary ironic as it was also vague and lawyerly. She had said that the redundancy in the order comes from the fact that it implored universities to follow rules they have already been following but vague to the point of the “stated institutional policies” because these policies shift with administration and government. She was fearful these policies will be imposed and redefined at a later date, but since public universities require large amounts of federal funding, “they are forced to agree to terms that haven’t been defined and could be detrimental.”
This comment was particularly interesting to me because it came from a university that is undergoing a lawsuit with Ben Shapiro for an incident last year. Shapiro was scheduled to speak at the university but was shipped to the less populous St. Paul campus. This infuriated fans and Shapiro alike as they thought it was a calculated tactic by the school to reduce the wide impact the speech could’ve had. The move took the speech from Willey Hall (capacity 1,000) to the Northstar Ballroom (capacity 400), which the university claims “was for security reasons.” Kirtley commented on this, saying the school was trying to balance economic issues by hoping to reduce protesting and subsequent destruction. This was clearly not the case, as the school has hosted other controversial speakers such as Milo Yiannopoulos. Kirtley said the school can combat this issue by taking a closer look at budgets and having better planning and they shouldn’t shut down a speech based on fear of protest. I definitely laughed out loud hearing this at the event as the political answers kept flying.
The event proceeded with Kirtley not forming a significant opinion on pronoun usage or trigger warnings by saying, “It’s all situational and depends on how each variable has been defined at a specific time.” Throughout the event it was hard to peg one specific agenda or ideology being represented but it was mostly vague left-winged work-around answers.The event concluded with a change of views in the topic social media. A question was brought up in light of EU’s new “Terrorist Content Regulation” proposal about how to regulate hate/riot incentivizing speech on social media. Kirtley seemed to be caught off guard for the first time in the entire segment (probably because the question came from the audience) but reminded the crowd that prospective judgment of speech is a slippery slope, especially for a global company. She concluded, in a surprising true free-market spirit, that they are in charge of what they own and can make their own regulations in order to survive in the industry.
Overall, I was neither impressed nor surprised with the free speech event the university held in wake of many rising issues infringing on free speech. It was easy to see the intelligent, well-thought out answers given by Professor Kirtley, but it was too much of a cop out. There were four total students in the audience; these events will continue to hold no weight amongst the student body until they start giving real answers to real questions rather than turning them into their own press events with no real substance.