Students convened at the “Whose Freedom? A Deliberative Dialogue on Inclusion and the First Amendment” event to tackle the topic of what public universities can do to uphold their constitutional First Amendment rights of free speech while fostering an inclusive community.
The event was held Monday evening in the Chenango Champlain Collegiate Center Multipurpose Room. Alison Twang, the associate director for the Center for Civic Engagement (CCE), said the goal of “Whose Freedom?” was for students “to examine difficult public issues from different perspectives.”
The discussion had organized small group dialogues with one to two group facilitators each. Discussion time was equally divided between three aims: what are the challenges in First Amendment rights and inclusion, what are potential solutions and what are the pros, cons and trade-offs or compromises that should be considered with each identified solution.
The roughly 60 students in attendance talked about the First Amendment as it relates to Binghamton University and inclusive spaces through three frames: prioritizing student safety and well-being, upholding the ideals of the First Amendment and affirming the educational value of intellectual curiosity and engaging with ideas across differences.
Stephen Corbisiero, a sophomore majoring in environmental science, attended “Whose Freedom?” to fulfill a class requirement to observe a political event. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Corbisiero said he witnessed both a lack of social interaction on campus, as well as ample student political expression.
“We lived through a pandemic last year and on campus there wasn’t a lot of speech,” Corbisiero said. “It was quiet, there weren’t a lot of social interactions — at least for me — and I feel like a lot of people in our politicized world are afraid to share their thoughts or speak out about [First Amendment rights and inclusion]. Around last year’s election, there was a lot on campus free speech-wise. You saw people putting up Post-it notes in their windows, advocating for certain parties or certain candidates, and I think that type of symbolic speech was really cool to see around campus.”
Lea Webb, a diversity education coordinator for the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), had boxes overflowing with the ideas and solutions students came up with at the event in her office.
“There are a lot of recommendations to unpack,” Webb said. “You see that big ol’ pile over there? But again, that’s why we like deliberations because it creates a space to have a dialogue but also to come up with some potential action steps. So the conversation doesn’t turn into, ‘Oh, we had this great conversation,’ and then, ‘OK, what happened?’ It kind of disappears into what I like to call the dialogue abyss.”
This moderated discussion was a follow-up to two roundtable debates held during the 2020-2021 academic year.
Jenna Berman, a sophomore majoring in history, said that these types of events give students voices and a way to productively impact campus.
“One of the biggest takeaways from the event was that students are very passionate about creating a safe environment on campus,” Berman wrote in an email. “In the group I was in, we discussed the concept of restorative justice and ways in which this could be implemented on campus. Essentially, restorative justice calls for a meeting between the victim and perpetrator in which the goal is for them to come to a mutual understanding of the harm that was caused. Prior to this discussion, I was unfamiliar with said concept, but I believe this is something that could have a positive impact on student relations and the overall campus environment.”
Korin Kirk, a diversity education coordinator for DEI, said students brought up an idea that would equip the entire BU campus with tools to handle unintentionally or intentionally offensive interactions.
“One common thing that I was hearing a lot was about maybe giving folks the tools to have discussions even in smaller instances,” Kirk said. “Not in a deliberative dialogue necessarily, but how would you handle an interaction where you might have offended someone, or someone said something offensive to you.”
Kirk and Webb said they plan to continue offering events like this in the future, in partnership with collaborating organizations such as the DEI, UDiversity Educational Institute, the Multicultural Resource Center, Speech and Debate, the CCE, the Student Association and the Graduate Student Organization.
When asked what these events can do for the campus community as a whole, Corbisiero said they can start new dialogues and help people recognize the importance of the First Amendment.
“I think the idea of events like tonight are obvious in the title — to promote inclusion and the First Amendment, but also to get conversations going and people thinking,” Corbisiero said. “I think a lot of people take the First Amendment rights for granted and that people have varying experiences with inclusion and fitting into different social groups, so I think the whole point is to raise awareness of the issues at hand, to expose people to different perspectives and to get people talking about it because it’s an important issue to discuss in today’s society.”