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The First Amendment and PUC

By Rebecca Rossi
On April 1, 2012

On March 27, in light of PUC's ongoing protests regarding abuses of free speech as it pertains to those in power, Adam Kissel, vice president for Programs for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Higher Education, spoke broadly on such issues.

Kissel began with an explanation of the differences between the k-12 school system versus college. He noted how in grammar school, students are led to believe the indoctrinated beliefs of the community, while in college, individuals are placed in a community of free thinkers.

"What are the true ideas, what are the false ideas? What are the beautiful ideas, what are the ugly ideas?" Kissel said.

He stressed that we must allow ourselves to get offended regularly, because surrounding oneself with homogenous groups of people limits learning and the ability to analyze and develop an effective counter argument.

His solution to dealing with an offensive person is simple, "The right remedy for bad speech is more speech." Kissel went on to stress that if all one does is get the person who offended us in trouble, then the necessary dialogue does not take place. For one to converse with the person whose individual beliefs disgust them is exercising what Kissel called "intellectual humility." He defined it as, "thinking you can be persuaded."

After his speech, many questions were asked pertaining to how far a professor can go with sharing controversial beliefs. The hypothetical scenario posed was that if a professor revealed himself to be a KKK member would that not be an infringement on the students' rights to a safe and comfortable learning environment? Kissel said no. For starters, Kissel said that we are entitled to a safe environment, but not a comfortable one (comfort as in identical viewpoints).

As for abusing free speech, "It has got to be conduct, not just speech."

An example he gave of conduct was a person constantly calling another at 3 a.m. just to say hello. The person being called is made a victim because they are afraid to sleep for fear of another 3 a.m. call. Kissel went on to say that infringement must be directed at the victim or a group of identifiable victims, say a "pizza of the month club," but not an entire demographic. To sum it up, Kissel made clear that a professor with such beliefs cannot treat students differently based upon those beliefs or threaten them, but he is entitled to have his own opinion and to be honest about his feelings.

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