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Free speech, banned books and libel: UNC celebrates First Amendment Day

Dr. Francesca Tripodi introduces the Banned Books Reading Event from the steps of Manning Hall on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022, as part of First Amendment Day.
Dr. Francesca Tripodi introduces the Banned Books Reading Event from the steps of Manning Hall on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022, as part of First Amendment Day.

The UNC Center for Media Law and Policy held its thirteenth annual First Amendment Day on Wednesday, hosting a full schedule of panels and events that explored an array of topics related to freedom of speech and Banned Books Week. 

The lineup included subjects ranging from libel in journalism, the regulation of social media platforms, rhetoric of free speech, conversations about banned books and a debate presented by the UNC Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl Team. 

The keynote speech was delivered by University of Florida Law Professor Clay Calvert, who spoke about the free speech rights of public school students in the age of social media.

Daniel Kreiss, professor at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, said the day is a time not only to celebrate the First Amendment and the freedoms it gives but also to critically analyze them.

“So, how do we wield expression and speech responsibly? How do we do so in ways that respect the other values of our democracy, like equity and inclusion; like truth and discourse and critical inquiry?" he said. 

Kreiss was one of four panelists on “Weaponizing First Amendment Rhetoric,” which analyzed how the First Amendment has been used to justify extremism and behavior that is damaging to democracy. 

The panel comprised experts from the UNC Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life, where Kreiss is a principal researcher. Also included were Senior Faculty Researchers Tressie McMillan Cottom, Shannon McGregor and Francesca Tripodi. The panel was moderated by postdoctoral research fellow Nanditha Narayanamoorthy, who posed questions to the group about how public interpretation of the First Amendment has shifted with the emergence of social media. 

“I think we have to really move beyond this folk theory of unlimited free speech to think about who deserves to be heard and what are the balancing priorities that we can find between speech and the other rights like to liberty and to feeling safe and happiness that we have also laid out in our founding documents,” McGregor said during the panel.

The relationship between free speech and social media was a common theme throughout the day, culminating in Calvert’s keynote speech that mentioned the 2021 Supreme Court case Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., in which a high school student was suspended from her cheerleading team for comments she made on social media.

 “So they're using their own smartphones or their own computers, to make comments that somehow offend teachers, or their school or their classmates, and then the schools are essentially punishing them for what I would consider to be their off-campus, online speech," Calvert said. "And so the question then becomes, should the school really have the power to do that? Because they're not on campus when they're doing it, and they're not really under the jurisdiction of the school.” 

Issues of student privacy and free expression were paramount during the day’s discussions, with panelists invoking examples of recent free speech controversy to demonstrate the uncertainty of the moment.

 “It's a very fraught moment and questions of speech and communication and expression are just really top of mind when it comes to thinking about our democracy,” Kreiss said. “And I think, as a society, we need to figure out ‘How do we balance freedoms that we have with norms that also protect the democracy that we have?’”

Conversations regarding free speech in public institutions continue to be ongoing at the University. The Faculty Council and Board of Trustees recently passed resolutions affirming free expression on campus. 


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