Freedom of speech has been a topic of discussion after a recent campus visit by a self-described public preacher.
Keith Darrell’s religious views and opinions on westward expansion angered students such as Randy Banks, who was detained by the Durango Police Department after getting in an altercation with Darrell.
While Darrell's speech was inflammatory to many people on campus, he had a right to be there, Mark Seis, a sociology professor at FLC said.
“I think we have to have that insanity, that we have to allow that because how would we ever know then what the truth is if we don't have an ability to listen to a lot of people talk,” Seis said.
There is a need for people to express their opinion and make their voices heard, Ryneal Lewis-Adams, sociology major at FLC and activist on campus, said.
Students gathered the day after the preacher came to campus to voice their opinions on the line between free speech and hate speech.
A statement was also sent on behalf of President Dene Thomas in an email to the student body.
“This campus, as a public institution, is a public forum for discourse, even discourse with which we disagree,” the statement said.
Universities and colleges are one of the last places where people can explore diverse ideas and embrace differences in opinions, Seis said.
Colleges and universities would be shooting themselves in the foot if they did not allow the expression of diversity to strive on their campus, he said.
Free speech and polarizing opinions have been discussed within FLC’s administration, Mitch Davis, the Public Affairs Officer said. The president’s cabinet has been focusing on what these debates can teach us, he said.
“This is an issue that you look across the country at other colleges and universities, and I would say every single one is dealing with these kinds of issues,” Davis said.
Davis said that there is passion on all sides of this issue.
There are the people who feel that when you’re on campus you should not feel like your beliefs are being devalued or attacked, he said.
Other people feel like students would be at a disadvantage if they were not exposed to radical ideas, he said.
While everyone is entitled to speak their beliefs, it is not right that people can go around and attack the lifestyle or identity of other people, Seis said.
There are many different ideas about what to do about this issue, and one idea is a safe space, Davis said.
However safe spaces are difficult concepts to define and enforce, he said.
“One of the questions you have to ask if you created a safe space is who decides what’s okay in a safe space,” Davis said.
Some define a safe space as protecting against hate speech or attacks on opinions, he said. But how do you define hate speech, and how do you define an attack?
Another issue when considering the creation of safe spaces or free speech zones is power dynamics, Seis said.
Historically, free speech favors the privileged, leaving oppressed groups and minorities with less ability to express their opinions and views, he said.
For example, the people in control of universities get to regulate free speech, he said.
There are many things that play a role in regulating free speech in the U.S. other than just the First Amendment, Seis said.
The Alien and Sedition Act was signed into law by John Adams and it limited immigrants rights, allowed the government to deport foreigners and essentially made it illegal to disagree with government authorities, he said.
Speech has been regulated for a long time, he said.
Other instances where speech is regulated in America is from Schenck vs. United States, he said.
“The court had ruled that you can't cry ‘fire’ in a theatre,” Seis said. “That's not free speech, that's not protected speech because it would create a panic people would get hurt and so there were constraints to speech.”
The Espionage Act also acted to curtail people's right to free speech, Seis said.
This Act was passed soon after the U.S. entered into WWI and made it illegal to interfere with the military or war effort or support any of America’s enemies, he said.
Free speech has always been limited, Seis said.
“Sometimes speech is totally shut down by the government, but I think in a more intellectual way that we never really had true free speech,” Seis said.
While the government limits free speech, colleges and universities are places where diverse ideas exists and should be expressed, Seis said.
FLC has considered free speech zones in the past, Davis said. The school decided against implementing specific free speech zones because of the argument that free speech zones limit free speech elsewhere on campus, he said.
If a student group such as the Associated Students of Fort Lewis College or the dean of a department suggests a policy, the policy would have to be approved by the president’s cabinet, Davis said.
Darrell is not the first speaker with controversial opinions to visit FLC. In 1992, Shawn Slater, a spokesperson from the Ku Klux Klan spoke at an event at FLC, and the administration did not stop him from coming, Davis said.
When discussing different opinions it is important to recognize whether or not each party is willing to have a productive discussion, Erik Juergensmeyer, chair of the peace and conflict studies program said.
The Peace and Conflict Studies program focuses on how to resolve conflicts both large and small, he said.
Darrell had opinions that created conflict, Juergensmeyer said. So what can be done when people disagree?
Recognizing if a person has interests rather than positions is one strategy to dealing with a conflict, he said.
People with interests want to create drama and attention, he said. People with positions are more likely to have a cohesive conversation, he said.
Since there were so many people surrounding Darrell, it was not a conducive environment to fostering a productive dialogue, he said.
One way to resolve the preacher conflict is to form a counter protest, Juergensmeyer said.
Nancy Stoffer, coordinator of diversity programming, also agreed that a counter protest is a good strategy to resolve conflict when there is a large group of people.
The Common Ground program provides strategies to have more productive conversations about sensitive topics, Stoffer said.
It is about understanding rather than attacking, she said.
If someone says something that is insensitive or offensive to a particular group, Common Ground teaches that the parties try to find a common understanding, she said.
One should ask why a person would say that or the reason why they think that, Stoffer said. Let them know how it sounds from another person’s perspective, she said.
Common Ground does not silence other people’s opinions unless those opinions are inciting violence, she said.
There is a lot of creativity that can be brought to situations like the preacher incident, she said.
“We don’t have to be happy with somebody to still allow them or still want them to have their civil rights,” Stoffer said. “Allowing free speech does not mean that we agree with that speech. It just means we agree with free speech.”
Shawn Slater - 1992
KKK at FLC
Shawn Slater, a spokesperson for the Ku Klux Klan, was invited to speak at FLC by the political science club in 1992, Larry Hartsfield, professor of English said.
Much like today, political correctness and freedom of speech were prominent topics at the time, he said.
“It was a time of great tension,” Hartsfield said.
The college didn’t want Slater on campus, and students were freaking out about it, he said. But nonetheless, nobody stopped him from speaking on grounds of free speech, Hartsfield said.
The college and community tried to downplay Slater’s validity by turning the event into a panel discussion with other speakers and cancelling classes, Hartsfield said. Purgatory offered free skiing and a local brewery held a concert to draw attention away from the man, he said.
Campus was deserted that day and armed law enforcement was on the roofs in case anything happened, but the day turned out to be anticlimactic, Hartsfield said.
One of the greatest threats to our culture at this time is not talking about threatening ideas that challenge our own ideas, Hartsfield said.
“Freedom of speech is often offensive,” Hartsfield said. “Who decides what’s offensive?”