On Saturday, Nov 12 the Freedom Project will host a student-led conference focusing on issues of freedom of speech and campus diversity. The event will run all day and will feature a diverse range of student speakers. According to Margaret Flynn Sapia ’19, a co-organizer of the event and a member of the Freedom Project’s student advisory board, the goal of the conference is to promote tolerant and respectful discussion of controversial and often-polarizing issues.
The conference’s sixteen speakers were selected to represent viewpoints from across the spectrum of freedom of speech and expression. Four current Wellesley students- Esther Jaffee ’19, Asriel Walker ’19, Kaviandra Thennakoon ’19 and Soumaya Difallah ’20- are among the panelists. Others hail from schools across the East Coast and Midwest and come from a variety of backgrounds.
Among those invited to speak at the summit are Becca MacLean and Alec Ward. MacLean is a senior at Tufts University and a campus leader who is working on a number of initiatives aiming to promote inclusivity and social change through the performing arts. Her work explores privilege and the role of race in society. Ward attends the University of Pennsylvania where he is the senior columnist for the school’s student newspaper. He is a Fellow at the Penn Program on Democracy, Citizenship, and Constitutionalism and has appeared on nationally-broadcast radio programs to discuss questions of open expression on college campuses.
Sapia stressed that the conference aims to create discussion rather than promote certain ideologies.
“While this project did take root in the Freedom Project, the idea isn’t to promote freedom of speech — it’s just to promote dialogue about a controversial issue.”
Saturday’s conference is organized into four panels focusing on different themes. The first panel highlights the importance of campus diversity and freedom of speech, while another explores trigger warnings, micro-agressions, safe spaces and university trends. One panel focuses on issues of hate speech. The final discussion will consider administrative and student involvement with these problems and possible solutions.
Sapia says that she was compelled to organize the summit in light of events playing out at schools across the country.
“There have been so many incidents at universities recently where faculty, administration and students have clashed about safe spaces[,] microaggressions[,] campus diversity and cultural appropriation.”
The conference will be a platform for and panelists and attendees to explore a number of challenging questions such as: Should administrators be the ones to set the limits on student speech? Should hate speech be allowed? What qualifies as hate speech? How do we provide safe spaces for people on campus while still promoting intellectual pluralism? Sapia believes students must play a role in determining the answers to these questions.
The Freedom Project was launched by Sociology professor Thomas Cushman four years ago in an effort to expand the range of voices heard on campus.
Professor Cushman said that part of the organization’s mission is “to get students comfortable with contentious ideas and expand the range of discourse on important topics.”
He believes that exposure to a wide variety of ideas is vital in preparing students to defend their views in a world that is not always as receptive as the Wellesley campus. He also emphasized the importance of freedom of expression in the liberal arts and said that students should feel able to freely explore and debate ideas while also maintaining sensitivity.
Sapia ’19 cited a similar desire for open and engaging discourse as a reason for choosing to attend Wellesley.
“[P]eer discussion — talking about what they believe and having them question you- [is] what I want in coming to Wellesley. I wanted to have debates. I didn’t want to be surrounded by people who all believed the same thing. I wanted [my school] to be really vibrant and lively and diverse.”
The summit’s format emphasizes audience interaction and collaboration. Current Freedom Project Adam Smith Fellow, Hannah Jacobs ’19, believes that audience engagement is a hallmark of the Freedom Project’s lectures and speaker events.
“I’ve seen a lot of brilliant rebuttals from audience members and I have always been engaged- and entertained- when I hear a debate with both sides giving respectful and well-said remarks.”
The Summit on Freedom of Speech and Campus Diversity will be held in the Clapp Library Reading Room. The first of the four 90-minute panels begins at 9 a.m., and students are invited to attend any combination of events. Lemon Thai lunch will be provided.