On Jan. 29, nine Massachusetts universities, including Brandeis, co-hosted the first discussion of a newly developed discussion series titled “Dialogue and Action in an Age of Divides.” During the online webinar, panelists weighed in on the increasingly debated discussion of hate and free speech. The program was moderated by Roderick Ireland, professor of criminology and criminal justice at Northeastern University and former chief justice of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court.

“I think the stance on neutrality is bogus,” Andrew Leong, professor of philosophy at University of Massachusetts Boston, said during the discussion. “It’s talking about who you are not going to be protecting. It's those that are disenfranchised, those who are marginalized that will have their voices be silenced.”

Drawing from personal experiences, Leong emphasized that “freedom of speech is not equal because not all of us have the same power or the same volume.” During grade school, Leong remembers being made fun of for his limited proficiency in English and ridiculed for his differences as an immigrant. Similarly, while attending law school, in an ethics class Leong found the phrase “Chinese Wall” to be problematic. The “Chinese Wall” is a measure used by law firms to ensure information gained from one client does not get mishandled or shared to another member of the same firm who is representing another client related to the matter. Leong was afraid that he would experience the same reaction he faced during grade school. 

“No matter what the social differences are, whether it’s race, whether it’s gender, whether it’s sexual preference, whatever it may be, the minute that we as teachers, as educators, understand that something is happening, that that particular student is being made fun of, we need to control the room; we need to change the dynamic,” Leong said. He actively called out schools and the education system to recognize failure to address bullying instances. “That’s not something that we’ve really done in the past.”

Kent Greenfield, professor and a dean’s distinguished scholar at the Boston College Law School, shared that regulating speech and expression does not have to reflect those of the public square. 

“Like a work place, the hostility created by speech can make it impossible for people to succeed professionally, a hostile learning environment can make it impossible for students to succeed academically,” Greenfield said. “I think that adopting the libertarianism of free speech doctrine is something that universities can choose to do but need not. I think universities can instead choose certain rules of discourse that govern their community to create an atmosphere and culture of learning.” 

To Greenfield, academic settings go beyond being a space where ideas and views are shared, but a place which encourages students to thrive and participate in their educational process. Therefore, he favors institutions that are “trying to make those difficult judgments, than at a school that throws up its hands and says, “These judgments are beyond us.” Especially when the costs of open debate fall upon our most vulnerable, our most marginalized, our most at-risk students, staff, faculty,” Greenfield said. 

“Those who would be put in a position to adjudicate these things may be motivated in good faith to be fair and even handed, but they may not appreciate how their own identity is influencing their analysis,” said Andrew Sellars, clinical associate professor at the Boston University School of Law. “That of course could lead to discrimination of its own.” Sellars spoke about the regulation of hate and free speech from the lens of power. He pointed out power is intertwined with one’s identity and social differences like race, class and religion can “augment or diminish one’s relational power.” 

Sellars also warned about the implication that speech code, meant to protect, can have due to power dynamics. “I am concerned about a stand alone ruler, stand alone code, because without attending to these other power dynamics, it can actually just exacerbate our problems,” Sellars said. 

A recording of the panel discussion can be found at Northeastern University’s website, under “Dialogue and Action Panel Series.” The next part of the series, “Coming Together Across Difference: Finding Common Ground Across Identities and Political Divides,” will take place on Feb. 13 from 5-6 P.M. EST. More information can be found on Northeastern’s website