Panelists discuss speech and inclusion in classrooms at diversity summit

Media Credit: Graeme Sloan | Contributing Photo Editor

Bettina Love, an associate professor at the University of Georgia, speaks about academic freedom at a panel discussion Friday.

A group of academics spoke about academic freedom and its impact on marginalized communities at the Marvin Center Friday.

The panel discussion, moderated by alumnus Devan Cole, a breaking news reporter at CNN, was part of the University’s fourth annual Diversity Summit hosted by the Office for Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement. Following remarks from Provost Forrest Maltzman, the panelists discussed the importance of inclusivity on college campuses and the respective roles of academic freedom and freedom of speech in starting conversations about political issues.

The panelists discussed the distinction between academic freedom and freedom of speech. Bettina Love, an associate professor at the University of Georgia, said that while freedom of speech gives individuals the right to disseminate falsehoods, academic freedom is a fact-based freedom of expression within the classroom.

“Academic freedom does not mean you get to say whatever you want to say,” she said. “When you enter the classroom, this has to be a place of facts and of knowledge and of creations of knowledge for the betterment of man.”

She said academic freedom should serve as the “cornerstone” for productive debates about social issues, and conversations in academic settings should be held to a higher standard of factual integrity than typical public discourse.

“What happens in our classrooms should not mimic society,” she said. “We should be better than society in our classrooms.”

Maxwell Little, an activist and author, talked about how the voices of minority groups have historically been marginalized in American society.

“When you think about freedom in this country, it has always been preserved for white individuals,” he said. “We’re still struggling with who has the freedom to do what, or say what, in this country.”

Lorelle Espinosa, the vice president of research at the American Council on Education, said greater civility in public discourse is often defined in a manner that makes it difficult for the voices of minority groups to be heard.

“The big question is who is making the decision about what ‘civil’ is,” she said. “This is where you get into perhaps the white-dominant, or status quo-dominant, definition of ‘civility,’ where another group’s behavior is often seen as not civil because they are different.”

The panelists also discussed how to address hate speech, especially from college faculty members. Nadine Strossen, a former president of the American Civil Liberties Union, said most insensitive comments are unintentional, and it is important to educate individuals about the harmful impact of their words in an empathetic manner.

“The best way to sensitize somebody so that they will understand how hurtful and harmful their words were so they will make amends and be better professors and people in the future,” she said. “It’s not to treat them as criminal, not to punish them, not to ostracize them, not to shame them or humiliate them, but to reach out to them with compassion and empathy.”

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