Former journalist and journalism lecturer Sanford J. Ungar will explore the status of censorship and free expression in the United States through a new two-year Free Speech Project beginning this fall.
The project aims to document cases of free speech violations or reinforcement of expression in colleges, governments and social life and track them for future research and policy recommendations.
With institutions of higher education like the University of California, Berkeley and the Georgetown University Law Center in the spotlight for free speech issues, Ungar and his research assistants, Graham Piro (COL ’18) and Will Haskell (COL ’18), will investigate and compile the history of freedom of speech in the United States and specific flash points on college campuses.
“We will study the condition of free speech in America today, both in higher education and in civil society, in an attempt to create frameworks that promote public discussion about divisive issues in a civil manner,” Ungar said in a Sept. 20 press release.
Georgetown has seen its own cases of intolerance of speakers with unpopular policy positions or personal beliefs. Students protested invitations to speakers including Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards and former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson last spring, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions Sept. 26.
Piro said the Free Speech Project would look into ways colleges can balance their academic missions with the spirit of free expression.
Ungar, who served as President of Goucher College in Baltimore, Md., for 13 years, said universities must work actively to secure this balance.
“At the heart of this project is how universities and American society at large can uphold the First Amendment while also protecting people from harassment and threats of violence,” Ungar said in a press release.
Based on their results thus far, the research team said they believe the common perception that college campuses silence mainly conservative viewpoints may not be true. According to Haskell, some media outlets overstate the degree to which censorship happens, and both liberal and conservative voices end up silenced.
“Right wing media coverage leads many to believe that conservatives are disproportionately facing censorship at institutions of higher education,” Haskell said. “However, we’ve tracked a variety of incidents in which liberal views are silenced through death threats, harassment or intimidation.”
The Free Speech Project will also interview academics, policymakers and activists to analyze different perspectives on the subject. According to Ungar, the hypothesis of the project is that free speech-related incidents across all levels are related.
“When you have stark and deadly confrontations in Charlottesville, Va., and brawls and death threats on the floor of the Texas legislature, you cannot expect college and university campuses to be islands of civility and peaceful debate,” Ungar said in the news release.
Haskell said current attitudes and events at the state, city and college levels make this research timely and important.
“States are passing laws that make peaceful protest legally perilous and physically dangerous,” Haskell said. “College students are shouting down speakers with whom they disagree instead of engaging with them on the merit of their ideas.”
Haskell said disputes surrounding speech often do not end with angry discussions or disagreements but escalate to mass manifestations and even violence, providing further impetus for the project. At U.C. Berkeley, protests of conservative commentator Ann Coulter escalated to violent riots April 27, while a white nationalist protest in Charlottesville Aug. 13 devolved to violence, resulting in the death of one counter protestor.
“State legislators are literally brawling when they cannot work out their differences. From a counter-protester losing her life in Charlottesville, Virginia to athletes defying the president’s tweets by taking a knee during the national anthem, the First Amendment has reached a crucial juncture,” Haskell said.
Piro said issues of free speech are particularly relevant to college students, due to the exposure they have on campuses to speakers, professors and peers with different beliefs and ideologies.
“Free speech is an issue that is essentially unavoidable when you’re enrolled in higher education in America,” Piro said. “It can be a wide-ranging issue encompassing issues of campus speakers and student activism.”
Ungar said a balanced understanding of free speech ensures students remain open-minded.
“We have to understand and deal with the fact that some young people may try to shut down speech they find offensive because they are worried that they won’t have their own opportunity to speak up and be heard,” Ungar said.
Haskell said their research seeks to defend the value of speech in higher education.
“Campuses should be places where the free exchange of ideas flourishes,” Haskell said. “If that isn’t the case, then we’re not getting our money’s worth.”