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Trinity Hosts Timely Discussion of the Contours of Free Expression on Campus

Hartford, CT, October 5, 2017 – Noted civil rights scholar Frederick M. Lawrence and longtime Philadelphia Inquirer editor William K. Marimow ’69, H’16 visited Trinity College for a discussion of “The Contours of Free Expression on Campus” as part of an ongoing Trinity initiative, “Bridging Divides: Higher Education’s Role in Advancing Understanding and Promoting a Just Society.” An audience of Trinity faculty, staff, students, alumni, and community members attended the October 3 conversation in Mather Hall’s Washington Room, with more viewers joining via YouTube live stream, including at Phi Beta Kappa chapter viewings on college campuses around the country. 

 
In welcoming remarks, Trinity President Joanne Berger-Sweeney described the Bridging Divides initiative as “a focused effort to bring the Trinity community together in creating an environment that invites dialogue and promotes understanding across differences.” She said, “As an institution of higher learning, it is our responsibility to create and nurture a community that advances understanding through discovery, discourse, and respectful listening.” 


Lawrence, the secretary and CEO of The Phi Beta Kappa Society and former president of Brandeis University, is a leading expert on free speech on college campuses and has testified before Congress on bias crimes and freedom of expression. Part of the importance of the evening’s conversation, he said, was “the discussion of the discussion,” noting that he has heard from students and faculty at colleges across the country that they realize issues around free expression are important, yet they are reluctant to talk about them.

 
“That’s the beginning of the end of academia—when we’re afraid to talk about these things,” said Lawrence. He and Marimow shared stories and hypothetical dilemmas involving free expression and controversial speakers coming to campuses. Each scenario provided opportunities to consider constitutional principles protecting individuals’ rights to free expression, the particular context around each situation, and the costs of free expression. Throughout their conversation, Lawrence and Marimow emphasized the need to achieve a balance of freedom of expression and respect. 


An example related by Lawrence occurred several years ago at Williams College, his alma mater, when he was a Williams trustee. A Jewish student had complained about a faux eviction notice she found affixed to her dorm room door. The notice was a facsimile of those put on Palestinian homes designated for destruction due to involvement with terrorism. Asked by the college’s president for advice, Lawrence said he suggested first examining the intent behind the posting. Had other students received the same notice on their doors or was the point to intimidate one individual Jewish student? As it turned out, every student in the residence hall, regardless of religious affiliation, received the same notice. 


Making the determination of whether someone has crossed the line from communicating views to intending to threaten or intimidate was a recurring theme, as was Lawrence’s observation that “the cost of free expression is not spread equally across society.” Lawrence said that some members of a campus community may be more deeply affected by some speech than others and we have an obligation to be mindful of that. “There will be cases in which speech is permitted, it is protected, but it is not consistent with the highest values of the institution,” said Lawrence. He shared that one of his guiding principles is a quote from Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “The answer to bad speech is more speech.” 


Marimow, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, quoted another Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, who defined the principle of free thought as “Not free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought that we hate." 


Apropos of his distinguished career in journalism, Marimow connected the discussion of free expression on campus to the wider sphere of news and digital media and the growing prevalence of “fake news.” An English major and Tripod reporter and editor as an undergraduate at Trinity, Marimow urged the audience to “support news organizations that support the truth.” He also referenced the “brouhaha” that Trinity experienced over the summer when comments posted on social media by Professor Johnny Williams were distorted and misreported by many, including online media organizations such as Campus Reform. 


Marimow and Lawrence agreed that truth seeking is a primary goal of a college education and when people see falsehood, it is imperative to call it out. Marimow cited a New York Times story about an alarming spread of fake news reports on social media following the October 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas. The gist of the false reports, manufactured by alt-right organization 4chan, was that the gunman behind the Las Vegas shootings was an anti-Trump liberal who had recently converted to Islam. The false reports, concocted with an intent to pin the shooting on liberals, went on to be widely spread by Google and Facebook, with both companies blaming algorithm errors for their part in propagating the fake news. 


Marimow noted that he met with student editors from the Tripod earlier in the day and discussed the importance of drawing information from a range of reliable news sources. “Don’t just look for the truth in those publications that reflect your sympathies,” he said. “Look for the truth by looking at both sides of the argument and then trying to determine where the truth lies.” 

The full discussion, including an audience question and answer session, is archived online here at http://bit.ly/2y4C7k6.
 

Photo by Nick Caito

Caption: President Joanne Berger-Sweeney, center, welcomes William K. Marimow ’69, H’16 and Frederick M. Lawrence.