During a recent forum hosted by the DREAM Collective, questions arose on whether universities should factor in free speech violations when punishing racist behavior.

The DREAM Collective’s goals are concentrated upon identifying and addressing racial issues that arise throughout the education system. This is the DREAM Collective’s second webinar, titled “Still Searching for Justice: Free speech and anti-Blackness in U.S. Higher Education” which was held on Friday, June 12.

In their forum hosted this time by J.T. Snipes, an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, the DREAM Collective brought in a new voice in a continued effort to bring awareness to racial injustices. In contrast to their last webinar, which was a panel discussion, this one took on a question-and-answer format, with only one person voicing their opinion.

Guest speaker LaWanda Ward, an assistant professor at Penn State University in the Department of Education, was brought in to use her legal knowledge to analyze the renewed conversations surrounding racial equality in the U.S. As talks to remove statues and rename locations that have racist origins have reached a fever pitch, Dean of the SIUE School of Education, Health and Human Behavior Robin Hughes asked Ward to speak for the webinar as an expert on free speech.

“Dr. Hughes reached out to me and said ‘You know, I know you're doing some work, [with] free speech, and so you know, could you give us a talk?’ And of course, my work is along the lines of a critical approach to free speech, and so I said sure,” Ward said.

As Snipes fielded questions to Ward, the conversation centered around the legalities of censorship when it comes to hate speech.

According to Ward, hate speech is an ill-defined concept. She went on to talk about the protections the First and Fourteenth Amendments give to people when it comes to racial comments and how they only become hate speech when they specifically target a person in a hostile manner. Ward said she finds these interpretations of the law irksome.

“In my thoughts hate speech interpretations typically dismiss or ignore black pain,” Ward said. “Just because I don’t have bruises, I have still been harmed by what was said. I have still been wounded, assaulted.”

Her comment stemmed from Snipes referencing an incident on SIUE’s Facebook page, when an African American faculty member called people out for their racist comments, only for administrators to ask for the faculty member to remove his comment. Though numerous racist comments still remain on the post, the faculty member’s post in question does not. 

This conversation prompted Ward to bring up a couple incidents in recent years in which school administrators made an effort to punish racist behavior, despite potential First Amendment violations being brought up against them by the individuals who were caught performing these behaviors.  One such instance was when Stuart Bell, president of the University of Alabama, made his decision to expel a student after she was caught using racial slurs over Instagram.

“And so Dr. Bell released a statement saying, you know, ‘this person’s speech is not in alignment with the University of Alabama’s institutional mission and values. I made a decision, she’s no longer in the community,’” Ward said. “Now as people would imagine, he was criticized.”

According to Ward, numerous organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, were quick to come to the student’s defense, saying the university had violated the student’s First Amendment rights. She continued by stating that even though legal provisions protect these kinds of speech, she wants to see more universities take similar actions to punish anti-Black sentiments on campuses.

“Anti-Blackness hate speech has no place in our campus community,” Ward said.

On the topic of protesters asking for statues of known racists to be removed and buildings to be renamed over similar regards, Ward acknowledges there are numerous issues facing those who request these changes. 

Ward said she understands there are financial considerations universities must acknowledge concerning the proposed alterations, but said if campuses are committed to changing their values there needs to be talks about what can be done to resolve those issues.

While there are many hurdles to overcome before changes can happen, Ward pointed out that there have been positive signs. According to her, even before the pandemic hit the country, students and faculty at her university had begun to make headway into educating their communities about racial issues.

“And part of that work is putting on workshops, anti-racism workshops for professors, for administrators, and so that movement was already in place in happening,” Ward said. “Some of our [doctoral] students … who are considered to be critical white studies scholars, they've been putting together, like, small intimate groups for conversations in reading.”

As Ward concluded her discussion, she hoped that one message would be imparted upon students as the webinar reached its climax: “Dissent, yes. Dehumanization, no.” With those comments, Ward urged people to think of ways to promote the First and Fourteenth Amendments while not dehumanizing people by abusing those rights. 

For updates on the DREAM Collective and future webinars, follow the group on Facebook at www.facebook.com/DREAMCollective20.

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