A Report from the American Constitution Society Annual Convention

From Guest Blogger Anna Jirschele, Chicago-Kent, Class of 2018

Lawyers, judges, and legal scholars came together in Washington, D.C., last week for the American Constitution Society’s 15th annual National Convention. Vice President Joe Biden welcomed attendees at the dinner on the opening night.

One particularly interesting panel was on “Race, Speech and Inclusion on Campus.” The panelists included Payton Head, former student body president of the University of Missouri; Wendy Kainer, author, lawyer, and commentator; Theodore Shaw, who had led the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and now teaches at the University of North Carolina School of Law; and Geoffrey Stone, professor at Chicago Law School. Dahlia Lithwick, senior editor at Slate, served as the panel’s moderator.

Payton Head began the conversation by sharing his experiences as the victim of his classmates’ racist behavior at the University of Missouri. He explained that he almost transferred schools because he was so uncomfortable with the racism occurring on the college campus he calls home. Instead of transferring, he fought for a more accepting campus. In 2014 he was elected student body president. When asked about handling diversity on campus, he emphasized the importance of communication.

While communication can help mend a college campus riddled with racism, Head noted that words can also be extremely threatening. His experience with racism at the University of Missouri was, in the words of Theodore Shaw, “emotional violence.” Most of the panelists argued that this kind of emotional violence is not always subject to the protections of the First Amendment and should be regulated.

Geoffrey Stone offered a partial dissent. He explained that higher education is arguably one of the “safest spaces” in the country. And further, if schools are supposed to be preparing their students for the real world, it would be doing them an injustice to shield them from rhetoric on a college campus, when the world is far more harsh than the classroom. Kainer echoed Stone’s comments on the importance of giving students a realistic view of what the world will be like after they graduate. Kainer then began to parse out the difference between “emotionally violent” speech and physical violence, and how college campuses and the First Amendment should approach each.

As the panelists discussed solutions for the issues faced by college campuses regarding race, the First Amendment, and inclusion, they all agreed that healthy debate should be encouraged among a diverse student body. Shaw said that as much as he does not value racist speech on campus, there is the risk that regulating any speech on campus could chill speech for all.

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