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Balancing free speech, university values stressed at PSS panel

Teri Miller (far right) moderated the Professional Staff Senate's "Freedom of Speech" discussion panel. Panel members were, from left, Jim Jarvis Jr., Joshua Sticht, Elizabeth Lidano and Tom Tiberi. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

By MICHAEL ANDREI

Published September 20, 2017

“UB has values, centered around inclusion, equity and diversity. Free speech is also one of our values.”
Teri Miller, vice provost for inclusive excellence

How should UB faculty and staff react to hate speech? What does, and does not, constitute harassment? Who should students call with questions about their right to freedom of speech?

UB faculty and administrators seeking answers to these and other questions filled a room in the Student Union on Tuesday for “Freedom of Speech: The Roles Staff Play in Leadership and Advocacy on Campus.” The session was sponsored by the Inclusion and Diversity Committee of the Professional Staff Senate.

“There is no lack of divisive issues on any major university campus,” Teri Miller, vice provost for inclusive excellence, told those gathered for the presentation. “Over the past five years, campuses across the country have seen an explosion of these issues.

“Most revolve around inclusion and free speech — which is often characterized as ‘under fire.’ UB has values, centered around inclusion, equity and diversity. Free speech is also one of our values,” Miller said.

Jim Jarvis Jr., associate council and one of four panel members for the discussion, called the exchange of information and ideas “an essential function of a university.”

“The disruption of safety issues complicates this and, across the country, is creating situations that are increasingly difficult to manage,” Jarvis said.

Miller raised the point that many speeches now have an anti-inclusion message.

“How do we balance these types of messages, which are contrary to our university’s values, with the rights for free speech?” she asked.

“It’s a delicate balance,” Jarvis responded. “One example being Richard Spencer’s speaking here last semester. The university can and does react with official statements of our values and principles. But it is also important to educate people about the fact that we cannot shut people out based on what they want to say.”

Joshua Sticht responds to a question during the Freedom of Speech panel discussion. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

Joshua B. Sticht, deputy chief of University Police, said that for future speakers who may also be controversial, UB faculty and staff should think in terms of conduct, not content.

“If there is a protest, as there was for Spencer, that’s what you have to watch for and be aware of. Outside groups were there to create that situation at UB,” Sticht said.

“A large part of outside strategy is to goad staff to cross that line, take action where you are actively involved. It is important that you do not cross the line into involvement.”

Added Elizabeth Lidano, director of the UB Office of Student Conduct and Advocacy: “We are a campus that values free speech and will not repress speech.

“However, we are now seeing more national organizations and groups attaching themselves to student groups to try and get their message out on more campuses.”

Regarding some of the most frequent questions she is asked, Lidano said, “One we get often is, ‘When does something rise to the level of harassment?’

“Something has to be targeted and repetitive,” she explained. “A direct threat. Most times what seems like harassment may not be, under New York State law. The bar is set pretty high.”

Lidano said her office also sees itself as a resource for students asking questions about how to express themselves, on issues or holding a protest.

“We feel it is our role to inform and support students on these issues,” she said. “It’s something we often work together on with Campus Life.”

Panel member Tom Tiberi, director of Campus Life, added: “We reach out, help student groups and we are there at events to help ensure students have the right to express themselves.

“When we are asked what are the right and wrong actions for students to take in these situations — rules of student conduct or Campus Life policies — we often refer them to the University Communications’ Freedom of Expression webpage, which provides an excellent summary of all of this type of information.”

Ellen Dussourd, assistant vice provost and director of international student and scholar services, asks a question. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

Campus Life is supportive of student causes, Tiberi said. “We want to be there to show students, ‘Here is how you can do it, and how you can’t do it.’ We want to help.”

Lidano agreed with Miller about the rise in the number of divisive issues on university campuses.

“Over the last couple of years, there has been a pronounced shift in activism toward the more polarizing, and more extreme positions,” she said.

“Activism at UB is, for the most part, very civil. And I am very proud of that. I remind students that you can get your counter-message out. We are here to help you do that.”  

Miller told audience members that whatever they take away from the session, “please remember that there are people here at UB whom you can go to for help and assistance.”

“These sorts of challenges are going to continue. Knowing there are people you can call is something that is important.”