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Free Speech On Campus: Utah State University Debates Where The Line Is

As the issue of free speech on university campuses makes headlines in various forms, a northern Utah university is trying to start a conversation with its students.

The issue of free speech on university campuses often comes down to one question: where is the line? How can universities find balance between students’ right to free speech and providing a safe learning environment for students?

On Wednesday, Utah State University hosted a panel discussing the issue. The event was moderated by Dean Joseph Ward of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Michael Scott Peters, Utah State’s student body president, emphasized the importance of tolerance among university students.

“Our student body theme is everyone belongs, that also means everyone’s idea belongs. Everyone is protected by free speech, and it’s our job to respect everyone’s opinion,” he said. “We may not always agree, but everyone does belong and so does their idea, because in the end we’re all part of the Aggie family.”

Rep. Justin Fawson of the Utah House of Representatives said he supported universities facilitating important conversations.

“I think it’s critical for our university students to make their own decisions about politics, about religion, about sexuality,” Fawson said. “So facilitating the conversation, great. I think it needs to be a balanced one.”

Kimberly Lott, associate professor at Utah State, said making students feel safe expressing their opinions was a key part of promoting free speech on university campuses. The data she references comes from a 2016 Gallup poll.

“I’m not sure what the solution is as an educator, but if you look at some of the numbers coming back from some of the surveys on college campuses, like 78 percent of students feel like you should be able to express any views even though they might be offensive to other people, but then on the other hand, you have 54 percent say they don’t feel comfortable saying those things because they feel like they might offend someone,” she said. “So I don’t know! It’s a quandary, I feel like.”

Marina Lowe, a member of the Legislative Policy Counsel at ACLU of Utah, said she was happy to see the university discuss the issue of free speech.

“The idea that this conversation is being had is so important,” Lowe said. “This notion of trying to find the line between free speech on one hand, and words that may cause hurt and harm on the other hand.”