By Julie Pike
While Rep. Larry Lockman spoke in Hannaford Hall on what he calls the “immigration crisis,” Muna Adan, a sophomore political science major, and other USM faculty and staff members brought a group of students and community members together to have a constructive conversation about free speech on campus.
In the Woodbury Amphitheater, Adan and Professor Ronald Schmidt served as co-moderators at the event. They encouraged the audience, composed of students, faculty, staff and community members to engage in a discussion about freedom of speech and hate speech.
This was the first event of a future series called Candid Conversations. The topic of this event was Campus Speech in an Age of Political Polarization. Adan, who is credited with the original idea of the event, stated that the idea was to have a space to allow staff, faculty, students and community members to come and engage with one another on different topics.
Adan noted that recent events have created a divide between students on campus, and she wanted to bring the community back together.
“There has been this divide between conservative and liberal students,” Adan said. “I’ve noticed that there has been this sort of opposition between them and I felt that it would be effective to start an ongoing moderated forum that allowed students to discuss controversial issues in a constructive manner.”
USM faculty and staff helped Adan launch the event. Schmidt agreed to help her run the event and others in the future. Adam Tuchinsky, dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, helped Adan obtain a space for the event, as well as obtain food and other supplies.
“Muna’s idea was to foster campus discussion about issues that students feel deeply about,” Schmidt stated. “These conversations don’t often happen in class because they may not be relevant to the syllabus or [may be] time consuming.”
To start off the discussion, Professor Dan Panici from the Communications and Media Studies Department spoke about the legal history of free speech debates on college campuses. The first 15 minutes of the event included mostly faculty and students from student government speaking. After that, a discussion involving other students took place.
Schmidt emphasized that the idea for the event was for the audience members to be able to engage in a thoughtful discussion about campus speech, not for the event to be run by faculty members
“The idea behind this is that students are having conversations and faculty would be there more as a resource,” Schmidt stated. “We struggled with how to set up the space so that students wouldn’t assume that the faculty, or who[ever]was sitting in the focus area, would be giving a presentation.”
Adan stated that she believed the event went well. Approximately 20 to 30 people attended, with others going in and out of the event. While it took awhile for students to become active in the event, they were still able to get a good conversation going, as Schmidt stated.
“After we got into it people spoke and they gave their varying sides on the issues,” Adan stated. “It was important because we understood that there was this disparity among students, but then people were able to understand where the other side was coming from. It shows people that even though we’re all different, we can still understand where the other person comes from.”
About an hour into the discussion, a group of people who were protesting the Lochman event came into the amphitheater. Schmidt stated that after they came in the meeting naturally shifted in tone.
The protesters played loud music as they walked into the event and began to become involved with the discussion as well, sharing their own views on campus speech.
“From my understanding of what they were protesting about,” Adan stated, “they didn’t like the idea that there was another event happening. They wanted us to all join together in solidarity.”
While the protesters did interrupt the conversation, they also provided their own point of views to the discussion, which is one of the goals Adan had in mind for the event: for students to feel comfortable sharing their views.
“I thought it was important that those voices were heard. A lot of the things that they said were things that were important for the people that came to the event to hear, because that’s how people were feeling,” Adan said. “They were expressing their opinion and people go about doing that differently.”
Even though the event came to an end after the group of protesters came in, Adan and Schmidt considered it a success and will continue to host similar events in the future. The goal is to have a bi-weekly event to allow people to talk about a variety of topics, in a safe and constructive manner.
“Some of the goals that I had in mind [were] that it would be a place for students to be challenged on their stance on big issues as well as an opportunity to hear a point of view that they may not have heard before,” Adan stated.
Adan and Schmidt are in the midst of planning their next event. Through the use of suggestion boxes, social media and online polls, Adan is getting feedback from those who attended on what important issues they would like to have a discussion on. She is working with several school departments to sponsor upcoming events.
“The most important part of these events will be to provide a space where people can come together and learn from one another,” she said.