The Office of University Advancement at the College of William and Mary hosted a panel discussion Monday on threats to free speech. The panel, entitled “Free Speech Under Fire,” featured short, TED-talk style speeches followed by a discussion.
The event was moderated by Dave Douglas, dean of the Marshall-Wythe School of Law, whose introductory remarks praised the merits of the First Amendment.
“We are a nation with a particularly robust commitment to free speech and its corollary, freedom of the press,” Douglas said. “If speech is robust and open and the press functions well, then we will have a better society.”
The first speaker at the event was Richard Schumann, dressed in colonial garb and taking on the persona of Patrick Henry.
“I have a basic, fundamental, inherent, natural right: the right to have an opinion and to express it,” Schumann said.
Following Schumann, Max Fisher ’08, content manager for Vox.com and former Flat Hat Executive Editor, spoke about some of the more insidious obstructions to free speech.
“Something you don’t hear a lot about is the culture of overwhelming and systemic online harassment of women journalists and journalists of color,” Fisher said. “I had a female colleague who had not just received death threats, but she had received something that is actually very common for women journalists on the internet. She received very detailed rape threats.”
Fisher noted that these threats were not simply offensive statements.
“As brave as my colleagues are, they are human and they have limits and I have to tell you, this is actively curbing free speech,” Fisher said.
Next to speak was Andy Pury ’73, chief cybersecurity officer for Huawei USA and former chief cybersecurity director under President George W. Bush.
Like Fisher, Pury addressed the social pressures journalists and publications feel a need to self-censor.
“I think there’s a tendency, because of political correctness, to not bring in the expert opinions,” Pury said.
Drew Dernavich ’90, a cartoonist for The New Yorker, said that pressure to curb free speech often occurs for economic reasons.
“They need to sell papers,” Dernavich said. “Cartoonists are encouraged to not take really radical stances on anything.”
The panel closed out with a question on Twitter from Bill White, who encouraged students at the event to use Twitter to respond with the hashtag #WMfreespeech,
“Does exercising the right of free speech also require a balance of civic responsibility?” White asked via twitter.
Douglas said there is a difference between having a right to speak and speaking ethically and appropriately.
“There is a civic responsibility to speak with some degree of appropriateness. Having said that, we have a legal system that allows somewhat more than what is really considered appropriate,” Douglas said.
Pury echoed this sentiment, saying that even though some speech can be negative, offensive speech should still be protected.
“People should act responsibly but it is not for government — at least not for the United States government to force people to act responsibly,” Pury said.