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Skidmore College

Author Sigal Ben-Porath urges colleges to safeguard freedom of speech

September 19, 2018
by Sanjna Selva ‘21

“College campuses are one of the most significant defenders of the First Amendment in the United States today,” said Sigal R. Ben-Porath at the first in a series of events in the Community Dialogue Series at Skidmore College.

Free Speech on Campus Ben-Porath, who has explored the importance of free speech in a politically polarized and diverse American college setting, is the author of the book “Free Speech on Campus” and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. 

During her Sept. 13 keynote, Ben-Porath stressed the importance of free speech as an ideal and principle in a democracy. She also spoke about touchy nuances of the topic, stating that free speech rights on campuses and schools inherently differ from those on the outside.

“Instead of banning hate-based speech and biased speech, express your opinions and exercise your democracy to protest and address these disagreements,” said Ben-Porath. “We should not start off by censoring speech that we disagree with as a first response.” 

Ben-Porath also recognized that certain groups of people such as communities of color, women, members of the LGBTQIA+ community and other target identities carry a heavier burden when it comes to defending themselves against hateful discourse. 

“We need to shift this burden, such that it is equally shouldered by everyone who believes that hate discourse is inherently wrong. Not just target communities,” said Ben-Porath.

Ben-Porath said she acknowledged the uneasy dilemma that students in the political minority on a college campus may face. However, she said it is important to recognize that questioning someone on their political beliefs is fundamentally different from questioning someone’s identity. 

The event, held at the Arthur Zankel Music Center, garnered a crowd of both faculty and students. Among the attendees was Cristal Maria, a junior political science major. 

“I was positively surprised by her talk,” said Maria. “I like how she recognized the importance of the First Amendment as a right for all, but also incorporated positionality and the need to recognize privilege when having open conversations.” 

The Community Dialogue Series is a set of programs spearheaded by the Office of the President to engage the Skidmore community in conversations about free speech. Ben-Porath will return to Skidmore in November to conduct workshops in conjunction with several other related speakers and community conversations.

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