Constitution Day panel discusses free speech and the First Amendment

Panelists from different disciplines discuss First Amendment rights

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Eric Kasper, Christopher Jorgenson, and Selika Ducksworth-Lawton led a panel discussion on Sept. 17 about Free Speech, moderated by Dean of Students Joe Abhold.

Students, faculty and staff gathered Monday evening to discuss the ins and outs of free speech and the First Amendment in celebration of Constitution Day in the United States.

The discussion, titled “Free Speech, Hate Speech, & Speaking Out: Finding Your Voice in the Speech Debate,” was led by a panel of UW-Eau Claire faculty and staff. Among them were Eric Kasper, a professor from the political science program, Christopher Jorgenson from the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center and Selika Ducksworth-Lawton from the history department.

Ducksworth-Lawton’s ties to the American Civil Liberties Union, a non-profit organization that has the goal of protecting constitutional rights for all, was one of the main motivators for her participation in the panel. Kasper is the head of the university’s constitutional studies program. Christopher Jorgenson spoke on the panel both as the director of the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center and as the chair of the Bias Incident Report Team.

“There’s a lot of speech that isn’t protected and a lot that is protected,” Kasper said. “There’s a lot more that is. It’s important to use the tools at your disposal.”

Kasper put the document into a historical perspective for the audience, serving as a reminder that this living document was written lifetimes ago and gave a brief history lesson on the Constitution.

Noelle Koenig, a first-year undeclared student, attended the panel discussion. She was motivated to attend the panel discussion by way of an assignment for a class. She said that even though this panel was an opportunity for extra credit, she enjoyed the material and was glad she came.

“I would say even in America there’s a lot people who have a lot of political views and views in general,” Koenig said. “Talking about how to talk to someone without being rude and drawing the line between slander and having a good argument — everyone needs a little bit of that.”

In addition to historical background for the First Amendment, the panel discussed issues of bias and provocation associated with people using free speech.

Jorgenson focused on dealing with bias incidents and reporting those incidents, on the campus and how to respond to issues involving bias in a productive way. Ducksworth-Lawton zeroed-in on the proper ways to respond to provocation and the use of non-sequiturs and the use of absurdist protest to counteract potentially offensive speech.

Almost every panelist discussed using one’s own free speech to counter hate speech, which is protected under the First Amendment. However, the discussion was not able to cover every element of the Free Speech debate. Ducksworth-Lawton wanted to cover more ground with the panel, but the time constraints of the event limited the depth and detail of discussion topics.

“I wanted to talk about avoiding violence and protest and how to manage protest while avoiding violence,” Ducksworth-Lawton said.

The discussion will continue for national pundits and local authorities, but now there is more information for the students and community of Eau Claire about what free speech really means.

Van Allen can be reached at [email protected]