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'Speak Up, Speak Out' panel discusses safe spaces, free expression


Dr. Christi Brookes from the foreign languages, literatures and cultures department speaks on the panel during the Speak Up Speak Out forum on safe spaces and freedom of speech on March 21 in the Bovee University Center Auditorium.

Four panelists said while there are many differing opinions on safe spaces and free expression, it is important to respect one another's views.

Students filled the Bovee University Center Auditorium on Tuesday for the final "Speak Up, Speak Out" panel discussion of the semester. The forum discussed the issue of academic freedom and safe spaces.

Justin Smith, associate professor of sociology, introduced the forum. He said the purpose of "Speak Up, Speak Out" is to engage the panelists and the audience in conversation. He wanted the audience and panelists to get a clear idea of the discussion.

Smith played five videos to the audience to start the forum. Each video showcased different views on academic freedom and safe spaces. Some videos referenced last year's University of Chicago's letter to students that did not support trigger warnings and safe spaces..

Professor Joshua Smith started off the discussion by explaining that we need academic freedom. He said people need to pursue the truth because, “That’s how we learn things.”

Christi Brookes, chairperson of Foreign Languages, Literatures and Cultures, talked about her experience with teaching. She said she always makes sure that she shows both sides of the story or event she is teaching to her class.

“It’s important to tell stories, but use caution," she said.

Brookes also encouraged students to talk to her or any professor if they have a problem with the way they teach something to the class.

The two students of the panel then discussed their views of academic freedom. Junior Bellal Ammar said academic freedom is important but he expressed that respect is the most important thing when it comes to this issue.

Senior Autumn Gairaud explained that people need different perspectives to learn, but also need to be respected when discussing different opinions and perspectives. The panel opened the discussion for members of the audience.

One student said if an in-class topic is controversial, it should be introduced ahead of time for preparation. Another student expressed the importance of safe spaces — that people need a place to recollect their thoughts before they go back into the real world.

Other students brought up critical questions such as, “Why is it the college’s responsibility to provide safe spaces?” Students said safe spaces can be both, physical and mental places.

Tim Boudreau, associate professor of Journalism, joined in on the discussion with an example of academic freedom. About five years ago, he invited members from the Westboro Baptist Church to speak for students in two of his classes. He said his invitation was not an endorsement to the group, but they were brought to CMU to let students express their freedom of speech and to let the speakers exercise their right to freedom of speech as well. Opportunities like these help people challenge others ideas, he said.

Boudreau added that if speakers are brought to campus, whether they are considered a member of the right-wing or the left-wing, should be paid for their visit. Their political affiliation does not matter when it comes to this.

Some students agreed with this statement, others did not. Gairaud felt differently on the subject.

“We should not pay people who infringe on people’s right to exist," she said.

Gairaud added she believes the CMU administration has not done of good job of "setting a good tone" as far of what it states and where it put its money.

Late in the event, one student believed the discussion had become one-sided. He believed that people should be able to exercise their right to freedom of speech because it is constitutional, and the constitution is the foundation of our country.

Justin Smith said one of the goals of this panel was to address the tensions in social issues.

“Students did a very good job of asking insightful questions," he said. "Hopefully it helped clarify the ideas of safety and freedom.”

Battle Creek junior Allison Tobey came to the panel discussion because she works with the Office of LBGTQ Services on campus. She said she thinks some people do not know the difference between hate speech and freedom of speech and that some people do not understand the importance of safe spaces.

“Some people don’t know what safe spaces are," Tobey said. "They think safe spaces are places to hang out and relax, but it can be a much deeper level than that, when it comes to issues such as having an anxiety attack. We still have a way to go to educate people on what safe spaces are.”

St. Joseph junior Amanda Starrett initially came to the event for a class, but said she enjoyed the panel.

“I liked that they mentioned bringing in speakers to challenge others," she said.