Provost, CCI faculty talk trolling and free speech at panel discussion

Nicholas Hunter

The College of Communication and Information (CCI) held a panel discussion, titled “Free Speech in the Information Age,” Thursday in the KIVA.

The panel, moderated by Amoaba Gooden, chairperson of the Department of Pan-African Studies, featured three speakers.

The first speaker was University Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Todd Diacon.

Diacon discussed the controversy surrounding a Golda Meir quote displayed on a wall on the first floor of Bowman Hall. Last semester, students on campus created a petition that was brought to Diacon and President Beverly Warren, asking for the removal of the quote from the wall due to Meir being a contentious figure in Palestinian and Israeli relations.

Diacon said that, over the summer, renovations for Bowman Hall that were scheduled for a few years ago will require the tear down of some walls that feature quotes on them.

“Long before receiving the petition, I had opined to other university officials that we should not be in the wall display business,” Diacon said. “And that, with the renovation, we should not reconstruct the damaged displays but instead we just should remove all displays in Bowman Hall.

“So, when I received this petition,” Diacon continued. “I revived the conversation, and we determined we should not replace the damaged wall displays but instead remove all displays and refresh the interior hallways with new paint. In other words, we’ll rely on our great professors to communicate to our students, and there’ll be no wall displays in Bowman.”

Diacon also spoke about the response to the petition regarding the wall, specifically, the comments and media response to it that he observed.

“I was so very impressed with the clarity of the writing and the quality of the arguments put forward in the student petition requesting the removal of the Meir portrait and quotation,” Diacon said. “Whether I agree with the request or not, I believe no one could challenge the sincerity of the request or the spirit with which it was presented.”

The second panelist to speak was journalism professor and media law expert, Mark Goodman.

Goodman offered legal context to the idea of free speech and free press in the U.S. on college campuses, specifically through the lens of the relationship between universities and student media outlets.

“The challenges to free expression on college campuses, especially at public universities, have largely been the same since I began my career in the field 30 years ago,” Goodman said. “But what I can say is that the law has become more and more protective of students rights of free expression on college and university campuses.”

Goodman described a case from 1968 that took place at Troy State University, where a student editor was told by his advisers not to publish an editorial piece pertaining to a case at the University of Alabama, where the university refused to censor an article that was critical of the state government. Rather, he was told to publish an article with the headline “Raising dogs in North Carolina.”

“Instead, he left the page blank where his editorial supporting the University of Alabama president was to appear, except for the single word, ‘censored,’” Goodman said.

As a result, that student was suspended. He took his case to court, and the judge ruled that he should have been allowed to publish the editorial. This struck down a statute that prevented university publications from publishing material critical of the government.

The third and final speaker of the event was Amy Reynolds, dean of CCI.

Reynolds looked back to Diacon’s remarks on internet trolling, the different types of trolling that can occur online, and the impact it can have on people when it crosses a line.

First, Reynolds discussed the trolling that Merriam Webster does on Twitter, where the account sends out tweets that appear to be in response to President Donald Trump and his staff’s choice of words during speeches and in statements.

“Is this kind of trolling something that’s going to get somebody in court and sued?” Reynolds asked. “Who knows, but (it’s) probably not central to the kind of concerns that we’re talking about in the context of what happened to our students,”

Reynolds also discussed Milo Yiannopoulos, a far-right conservative public speaker and former senior editor for Breitbart News, and his harassment trolling of actress Leslie Jones, who starred in last year’s remake of “Ghostbusters.”

“His trolling,” Reynolds said. “Which was largely offensive tweeting, triggered all of his followers … to start sending her threats, photoshopped images that were pornographic.”

Reynolds called what Yiannopoulos’s fans did as harassment, and said “when (trolling) turns into harassment … then that creates a different context in which we have to determine what kind of speech is permitted and what is not.”

As Reynolds’ speech came to a close, she discussed the importance of understanding the difference between a troll, who is most likely trying to attract attention to themselves on the internet, and a harasser, who is asserting an actual threat to a person or group of people.

At the end of the event, Goodman said another discussion will be held in April, where more topics would be explored on the subject of free speech.

Nicholas Hunter is a general assignment reporter, contact him at [email protected].