Free Speech Lecture Kicks Off Community Dialogue Series

Free Speech Lecture Kicks Off Community Dialogue Series

This article was originally published on Skidmore.edu on Sept. 19, 2018.

Last Thursday, Sept. 13, Professor Sigal R. Ben-Porath traveled to Skidmore to deliver a keynote address entitled “Inclusive Freedom of Speech on Campus.” Her speech tied in with the theme of her latest book, Free Speech on Campus, that explored importance of free speech in a politically polarized yet diverse American college setting.

The event, sponsored by the Office of the Dean of the Students, kicked off an initiative spearheaded by the Office of the President: the “Community Dialogue Series,” a set of programs aimed at engaging the Skidmore community in conversations about free speech. After a year that saw numerous debates and discussions on the topic by students and faculty alike, this series could not have been timelier.

Safe spaces, trigger warnings, and hate speech have become increasingly contentious topics, prompting strong reactions on college campuses across the nation. The University of Pennsylvania, where Ben-Porath is a professor in the departments of Political Science and Philosophy, is no exception to this, she says.

“I believe, however, that college campuses are one of the most significant defenders of the First Amendment in the United States today,” Ben-Porath was quick to qualify.

She stressed the importance of free speech as an ideal and principle for all in a democracy, suggesting that the ways in which we consider and respond to challenges to free speech be developed further. Ben-Porath also spoke about the nuances in the touchy topic, stating that free speech rights on campuses and schools are inherently different than they are on the outside.

“Instead of banning hate-based speech and biased speech, express your opinions and exercise your democracy to protest and address these disagreements. We should not start off by censoring speech that we disagree with as a first response,” she said to the crowd.

Ben-Porath also recognized that certain groups of people such as communities of color, women, members of the LGBTQ+ community and other target identities, carry a heavier burden when it comes to defending themselves against hate discourse.

“We need to shift this burden, such that it is equally shouldered by everyone who believes that hate discourse is inherently wrong. Not just target communities.”

When questioned on her opinion about the position of conservative students on a liberal arts campus such as Skidmore, Ben-Porath responded that she acknowledged the uneasy dilemma that these students experience, especially when they are in the significant political minority. However, she emphasized that it is important to recognize that questioning someone on the basis of their political beliefs in fundamentally different than questioning someone’s identity. Positionality and the recognition of privilege are important factors in conversations about free speech.

The event that was held at the Arthur Zankel Music Center garnered a steady crowd of both faculty and students. Among the attendees was junior and Political Science major Cristal Maria, who had not read Ben-Porath’s book but was eager to listen to what she had to say. Skidmore News reached out to Cristal for her perspectives on the talk:

“I was positively surprised by her talk. I like how she recognized the importance of the First Amendment as a right for all, but also incorporated positionality and the need to recognize privilege when having open conversations.”

After the talk, the crowd was invited to adjourn to the foyer for a brief book-signing opportunity. Ben-Porath will return to Skidmore in November to conduct workshops in conjunction with the Community Dialogue Series.

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