In light of recent events surrounding equity, inclusion, and freedom of the press—namely surrounding the op-ed recently published by The Argus—concerned students invited local experts to address campus equity and inclusion from a legal standpoint. The event on Oct. 15, framed around the practices of campus publications, particularly those at a small liberal arts university, allowed presenters to give their opinions, answer students’ questions, and give their thoughts on how to move forward.
The three panelists in attendance were Attorney Cheryl Sharp ’90, Attorney Dan Barrett, and Professor Frank Harris III of Southern Connecticut State University.
Sharp is the Deputy Director at the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, with advocacy efforts in school bullying cases and racial profiling. She explained that she hears recurring complaints of discrimination and issues surrounding it.
“On a daily basis we take complaints of discrimination where people say, ‘Look, I was driving and I was stopped because of my skin color, religion, or some protected trait I have that I can’t walk out of,’” she said. “I’ve heard this conversation before: ‘We shouldn’t even have this conversation about Black Lives Matter because all lives matter.’ The real question is this, when you have a movement can you attribute the few who associate with the movement to the entire movement and cast a shadow over them? Or is this bad? Is this where we fall? Or does that come from a place of fear?”
Attorney Barrett is the ACLU of Connecticut’s legal director, with interests in anonymous speech, freedom of movement, mass surveillance, and maximizing democratic control of government through open courts and open records. He shared his experiences with working to protect and extend rights.
“In terms of speech in the last few years the cases have been.. children with disabilities and parents of children with disabilities,” Barrett said. “Both high school and college administrators are not the most flexible when it comes to criticism…. The school does not like… knowing they will have to spend more money to accommodate this child.”
Harris is a current professor of Journalism at Southern Connecticut State University whose research includes “The n-Word Project” where he collects stories from Americans about their experience with the n-word.
“Everything I do are things I do to advance the cause of justice and equality,” Harris said.
In response to the op-ed’s publication and the events that transpired in the following days, Michelle Lee ’17 felt that the University could use some outside perspective. As a former intern of Sharp’s, she first reached out to her at CHRO, as well as Barrett and Harris.
“When [the publication of the Argus op-ed] happened and people [were] offended by this, and then on top of that when the Student of Color community reacted, and then how Michael Roth reacted to that, I [thought], ‘I wonder what Sheryl thinks about this, or what any of the other civil rights lawyers think about this.’” said Lee. “Is this a freedom of speech issue, or this is a more of a historical exclusion of students of color issue?”
Lee thought that Sharp’s expertise, as well as the knowledge of the ACLU, with whom CHRO collaborates, would generate a discussion in which all sides would be represented.
“I wanted Sheryl to come in because she’s a really good role model that I have, she is someone that I aspire to become, and I know a lot of students of color felt pushed back by Michael Roth’s statement…” she said. “So I really wanted her to come in and meet them, and i know that ACLU and CHRO works together on a lot of cases, so I also invited Dan [Barrett] to the event. I wanted to have a balanced perspective, so that’s why I was looking for a journalist, who would be able to talk about more what it means to write stuff and have that impact the general society.”
Prior the panel, students were invited to submit questions for the three panelists. Bualong Ramirez, Assistant Director of Student Activities and Leadership Development (SALD), served as the moderator for the panel. The first question was directed to Barrett.
“Can you talk about ACLU and the work you do around free speech and the freedom of press, specifically how it can relate to campuses and liberal arts institutions like our own?” Ramirez read from the list of prepared questions.
Barrett responded by addressing the First Amendment.
“One giant footnote is the first four words [of the First Amendment],” he said. “‘Congress should make no law’. So in the context of the law, the Constitution has no affiliation with the university. If the government were to [shut down a national newspaper], there would be a big problem. When it comes to private universities, you all are what comes next. You’re going to be America, you’re going to be running the show… the idea is that you’re going to go out in the world where the First Amendment applies.”
Another question, directed toward Harris, spoke about a petition demanding structural changes of The Argus to include a more racially diverse staff at the cost of cutting the publications funding.
“Anybody can work on the paper; you don’t have to be a journalism major,” Harris said. “The issue is getting people to work on the paper itself…. I don’t like what was said, I don’t agree with it. But that being said, I don’t believe in silencing a voice…. The argument is that you don’t silence speech you disagree with; you come up with your own argument. The strong argument will win at the end.”
He further added that when he writes a story he is aware that there will always be a response, both positive and negative.
“I have a right to express myself as a citizen,” Harris said. “So as much as I don’t agree with what was said, I don’t agree with saying we should shut the newspaper down…. From what I read, I don’t think an apology is in order. I don’t think there is another hear as hate speech. It’s someone who believes what he believes.”
Questions were then directed toward Sharp.
“As a Wesleyan alumni (sic.)… and a civil rights lawyer, how do you resolve the conflict of freedom of speech when the speech is possibly bigoted in… an environment where people feel unsafe?” the question read.
Sharp responded by addressing the fact that individuals have the freedom to express their ideas, because without that, there is no development.
“Where is the line?” she said. “I do1n’t have an answer for you. Here, the important thing with the article is, did the student have the right to express his opinion? Does the paper have the right to censor or edit and include articles they want to include? Do they have that power?”
Hailey Broughton-Jones ’18, a representative from The Ankh, spoke not about the legal ramifications of the The Argus’ publication of the controversial op-ed, but about the long tradition of exclusion that she and others feel deters members of marginalized groups from joining.
“I understand that if you don’t feel like you’re part of the club, you won’t walk into the door,” Sharp said. “But if you want a movement, you need to take the first step. You need to submit an article and have it rejected. Then, you have a lawsuit.”
Though at first panelists were unsure whether a submission had been made, it was clarified later in the evening that all op-eds and articles received by students, surrounding issues of inclusion and otherwise, have been published in The Argus. Following the panel, Harris gave further clarified his position after synthesizing this new information.
“I’d like to think that this will be a productive discussion that will go forward,” Sharp said. “Sometimes you really don’t know until time passes. I hope particularly that people will submit stories to the newspaper, and… I’m presuming that stories that are submitted will be considered and will be run, so I guess I was surprised to hear, I guess I was clarified somewhat when I was told that it was only the particular item that was submitted [Bryan’s article] and not other stories.”
In addition to the discussion surrounding concerns about The Argus’ publication practices and issues with equity and inclusion, a topic that has become increasingly more salient, a question also addressed: What’s next?
Sharp acknowledged that steps to ameliorate the tensions must come from both sides. She mentioned that it is also important to remember that the recent events at the University are rooted in a deep historical context.
“But both sides need to be a little more forgiving,” she said.
Sharp added that there needs to be yielding on the part of the University, Students of Color, and other students in the community.
Harris, in a follow-up statement, mentioned that articles such as the one that incited the debate should not be the final word on such an issue. He encouraged the submission of responses to such controversial pieces, regardless of one’s interested in journalism or joining the publication in question.
“The fact is that many people don’t enjoy writing,” he said. “Everybody has an opinion, but not everybody enjoys writing. My opinion is that when there are issues that come up, people will write if they want to express themselves. And I think that, in the case of the gentleman who wrote the piece who got everybody all upset, and I think legitimately upset, though I don’t agree with some of the stuff that [followed], [you have to] present people with the opportunity, and it’s up to them to take it.”
At the end of the panel, the floor opened up for student questions.
In response of the WSA resolutions on the table at the time of the panel, Harris expressed his opinion on the larger issues that exist between governments and newspapers.
“That’s always not a good idea in terms of student government or any outside place trying to tell how to structure a newspaper,” he said.
He shared an anecdote of a situation that transpired at Southern Connecticut State University
“We had that issue at [Southern Connecticut State University] many years ago, and it became a big battle,” he said. “They wanted to actually train the people writing for the paper….What it was was that they were trying to get control of the paper so they could write what they wanted to write: nothing controversial. But we fought that and we won. It was controversial, but the key was getting the funding out of the hands of student government and into the hands of the students. We had a referendum, they voted, and they agreed that a certain amount of money would be set aside for student media, and that was the key for us.”