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Free speech debate continues with community “lunch and learn” event

Students and faculty spilled out of a packed Multicultural Center last Wednesday, where the Office of Multicultural Student Life hosted “Free Speech & Our Campus Community,” the latest installment in its “Lunch & Learn” series. The one-hour event was part lunch — attendees were encouraged to fill their plates with tacos, chips and salsa — part lecture and part group discussion on the topic of free speech on the University of Maine campus.

Director of the Office of Multicultural Student Life Silvestre Guzmán established from the beginning that the event wasn’t supposed to be a debate but rather an opportunity to help educate students on the legality of offensive speech, specifically as it applies to minorities on campus.

The featured speaker was Director of Community Standards David Fiacco, who opened by encouraging everyone to read the Constitution. The issue of free speech versus hate speech is rooted in the First Amendment, which grants freedom of speech but does not specify any further. Fiacco said that universities are supposed to be places where different opinions and ideas are discussed, not quieted. Because UMaine is a public university, people are free to gather, debate or protest on campus.

However, some restrictions apply, such as making loud noise in the middle of the night, disturbing the flow of traffic, or using sound amplification devices such as microphones or megaphones that disrupt classes, all of which could warrant university or police action.

Two members of the Orono Police Department (OPD), Officer Travis Morse and Chief of Police Josh Ewing, attended the event of their own volition in an effort to bridge the divide between police and students, especially students who are members of marginalized communities.

“A lot of people don’t have a great relationship with the police, and we want them to know that they can come to us and get results,” said Chief Ewins. “We want people to see us as a resource.”

UMaine cannot bar someone from speaking on campus based on their political views, and has an obligation to ensure safe events for any guest speaker. Controversial speakers who may spark a strong reaction require extra security, which can cost the university tens of thousands of dollars. The financial burden may prevent UMaine from hosting these speakers, but the school cannot place restrictions based on content.

The pop-up panel organized by the Rising Tide Center and the Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies program earlier this month addressed the same issues discussed at this event. At the panel, students and faculty explored the difference between free speech and accepted speech, and whether people should be allowed to use hate speech on campus where paying students can be negatively impacted.

At the “Free Speech & Our Campus Community” event, Fiacco established that speech is no longer protected when it incites violence, which brings up another complex issue: what constitutes violence? Some define it as a physical altercation, while others see it more broadly, including emotional violence. Officially, these issues are handled on a case-by-case basis, because “different words impact different people in individual ways,” according to Fiacco.

These blurry definitions make it difficult for anyone to reach a consensus on what should be protected speech. Because of that lack of clarity, members of the UMaine community will continue having these conversations and working towards solutions.

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