Panel discusses future of free speech, First Amendment

From left, SPJ-Madison President Mark Pitsch, UW-Madison student Saivon Castro and UW-Madison Center for Journalism Ethics Director Kathleen Culver listen to a question from the audience during a discussion Tuesday night on the First Amendment. – James Debilzen photo

MADISON – A panel of free speech advocates addressed looming issues involving the First Amendment on Tuesday during a discussion at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The panel spoke about the implications of a bill before the Wisconsin Legislature that could punish students for disrupting controversial speakers, the death of a counterprotester at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., and President Donald Trump’s constant clashes with the news media. The panel was hosted by the Madison chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the UW-Madison Center for Journalism Ethics.

“Today, we’re confronted with a number of new questions surrounding speech, particularly public speech,” said Mark Pitch, president of the Madison SPJ and moderator of the panel. “… Some people have called for additional restrictions on speech. We’ve got a president who refers to the news media as ‘fake news’ and threatens to change libel laws … Today, we’ll try to discuss all the important questions surrounding these issues.”

The speakers were attorney James Friedman, representing the Wisconsin Newspaper Association; Kathleen Culver, assistant professor, James E. Burgess chair in Journalism Ethics and director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at UW-Madison; and Saivon Castro, a UW-Madison student and research assistant for One Wisconsin Now.

Attorney James Friedman, representing the WNA, makes introductory remarks during a panel discussion on the First Amendment on Tuesday night. – James Debilzen photo

Friedman said he and members of the WNA generally support the broadest interpretations of the First Amendment and the rights of free speech, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly, noting any talk of new limitations should be cause for alarm.

Friedman said he was troubled about the bill before the state Legislature that would suspend or expel students who disrupt speakers at University of Wisconsin System events.

The Republican-backed measure, approved by the Assembly in June, is intended to protect the freedom of speech for speakers who may draw protestors, according to the bill’s supporters. The bill was authored after conservative commentator Ben Shapiro was disrupted by protesters in November at UW-Madison.

Pitsch said sponsors of the bill – including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, Sen. Sheila Harsdorf and Rep. David Murphy – were invited to participate on the panel, but were unable to make commitments due to busy schedules at the Capitol.

Friedman said he believes the bill’s supporters are trying to address legitimate concerns, but he said the bill takes the wrong approach.

“My thought is this is the wrong solution and there already exists tools to deal with that issue,” Friedman said. “They’re general, logistical tools and there are also legal tools available.”

Culver also addressed the campus speech bill, noting there are valid concerns about disrupting speech and “ideological orthodoxy” on college campuses. But Culver said she believes it’s not “as big a disease as it’s sold to be” and that universities have become a “convenient tool in a much larger culture war.”

Castro said he was concerned the campus speech bill would disproportionately affect students of color, who have been at the heart of many protests at UW-Madison and around the country.

“The point of protest is to be loud and disruptive of the status quo,” Castro said. “One of the most powerful tools of the civil rights movement was civil disobedience and disruption. Under this policy, it’s unclear if counterprotestors in Charlottesville would have faced repercussions for that.”

Castro concurred with Friedman’s assessment of the campus speech bill, adding the remedies were “redundant.”

“This bill is heavy handed,” Castro said. “I think it is the height of legislative arrogance to believe the government can settle the civil discourse.”

Culver said there is a lot of talk about the rights that are guaranteed in the First Amendment, but not enough discussion about the responsibilities. She said it benefits society to hear differing viewpoints and, when necessary, to refute them. Culver also noted there is a problem with inequity in free speech, however, with speakers in the majority having more power than the minority.

“If you’re some bed-wetting liberal, you benefit from having conservatives challenging your view, and vice versa,” Culver said. “We’re retreating from the kind of engagement that’s going to make us better citizens (with) better minds.”

Friedman and Culver said recent attacks by representatives in government who try to discredit the news media should also be a cause for alarm.

“When government attacks the news media, when there’s talk of reforming libel laws, when someone says they’re going to restrict speech on campus, get nervous,” Culver said. “Get really scared. Be frightened of that. Because when you start to slowly accept those kinds of restrictions on free expression, this democracy is not going to make it.”