The Collegian
Wednesday, May 27, 2020

"What to do with Free Speech?" panelists discuss journalism and free expression

<p>Panel members Ashlee Korlach, Bill Bergman, Alec Greven and Riley Place discuss free speech on the University of Richmond campus.</p>

Panel members Ashlee Korlach, Bill Bergman, Alec Greven and Riley Place discuss free speech on the University of Richmond campus.

Editor's Note: Two of the panelists are either past or current members of The Collegian. Ashlee Korlach served as The Collegian's editor-in-chief from 2018-19, and Alec Greven is currently an opinions and columns writer. 

The article was later updated to provide two quotes clarifying Greven's views on the administration’s actions on free expression policies. 

With signs of spring appearing around campus, “Forum at the Forum,” an event series sponsored by the Speech Center, began outside the Gottwald Center for the Sciences on March 26. Panelists discussed the most-voted topic, “What to do with Free Speech?"

“Forum at the Forum” involves students voting on a topic that they would like to see discussed by the campus community, said Linda Hobgood, director of the Speech Center. 

The event revives a university tradition dating back to the 1960s and '70s when monthly public debates were held on campus "in an effort to rally an apathetic student body," according to the Speech Center website

Panelists included Ashlee Korlach, former editor-in-chief of The Collegian; Bill Bergman, instructor of marketing; Alec Greven, senator for the Richmond College Student Government Association; and Riley Place, president of the University of Richmond College Democrats. 

One of the panel attendees asked Korlach how The Collegian vetted op-ed pieces to provide a platform for open expression while ensuring details were factually correct. 

Korlach said The Collegian did its best to fact-check all information, but that even if an argument was not the strongest, she had put a higher value on expression of free ideas.

“I was of the mindset that we are a forum for campus discussion, and so we were going to publish things that other people were going to disagree with,” Korlach said. 

Korlach said she had trusted The Collegian readership to see through an argument that was not well-supported. Rebuttal arguments challenging op-eds are something that The Collegian considers and encourages, Korlach said.

In regard to free expression, Place also asked Korlach about an article where The Collegian mentioned a student’s arrest record, specifically asking when that detail could contribute to meaningful dialogue and when it becomes harmful to a person's reputation. 

Korlach said that when information such as the arrest record was mentioned in a public event, it was fair game for The Collegian. Greven said that this juxtaposed issues handled by the student conduct council that were not public information, such as the issue in fall 2018 regarding hate symbols on a gingerbread house.

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In a transition to the evolution of journalism, Bergman referenced his time at Newsweek. There used to be 30 people on a story, and now there are only three, which comes from financial pressure to get clicks to generate revenue, Bergman said. 

“Digital technology has changed the whole world of speech,” Bergman said. 

Korlach said that, although there were journalists who are driven by clicks, there were more with ethical values, particularly journalists on UR’s campus. 

“We do it because we identify with these values of truth, and transparency and accountability,” Korlach said. 

Greven raised points of policy regarding free expression at UR. One concern is that students need to get 48 hours of advanced approval if they want to protest an event on campus, despite it being a constitutional right, Greven said.  

“Richmond is a private institution so it has broad latitude of how it wants to respond to speech,” Greven said.

Greven said these policies were concerning, and that many students were not aware of them because they were buried in subsections of student handbooks. 

In 2014, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Education gave UR a red light rating on its restrictive speech policies on students, Greven said. Following this, the university moderately changed the restriction, but left in place many of its other vague policies, Greven said. 

Today, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Education rates UR's speech codes a yellow light.

Place said student organizations across campus had signed a petition to have these policies revisited, but that there had been little action from administration. 

“Among the students at least, it’s something they really want to see and people are taking action to see it happen, but progress has been slow," Place said.

Students want to have free expression rights match those outlined in the Constitution, Greven and Place said. 

Greven said that the university lacked a clear policy in free expression, and expressed concern that the administration had not taken substantive action aside from forums and discussions on free speech.

“I’ve talked with several administrators, but what I’ve been kind of told is there’s a bandwidth issue,” Greven said. “There's a lot of committees that are discussing issues right now and so they don’t really have the bandwidth to discuss this issue now."

Greven said that he had heard talks about the administration possibly forming a task force next year, but that he was worried that prolonged talks without action taken would cause a loss of momentum on the issue of free speech.

“That’s a concern I have, as we extend out the issue without taking action, eventually we’ll just kind of lose momentum,” he said. “There is a much higher rate of turnover with students. The longer it takes, the more students pass through this issue, whereas the administration can stay.”

Korlach added that there were many thoughtful faculty members who were looking to help students move forward on the issue of free speech. 

“I think free expression is a really important topic on campus right now, especially this year because we’ve been discussing it so much already,” junior Lindsey Paul, an audience member, said after the panel. 

Bergman expressed a desire for discussions like these. 

“There is so much going on around us now, with the current administration and everything that is happening in national politics and journalism, that it’s great for people to talk about," Bergman said. "So I’m just thrilled to be part of it.” 

Contact contributor Margaux Natiello at margaux.natiello@richmond.edu.

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