The role of free speech in America will always be discussed. It’s important to continue the conversation on college campuses.
While the winter chill is beginning to set in, students were still driven to step outside their comfort zones on Tuesday evening to the multipurpose room, where they broke bread and engaged in enlightening conversations surrounding the topic of free speech. There, roughly 40 students from SUNY New Paltz and Marist College intermingled at the latest installment of the “Beyond the Echo Chamber: Conversations that Matter” dinner series.
The tone was set by four student speakers from both colleges (two from each), who shared stories revolving around their own experiences and conceptualizations of free speech. Students in media were privately asked not to record or take photos of the event. However, they were allowed to interview attendees afterwards.
After attending an event at the U.S. Military Academy West Point in the spring of 2018, members of the planning committee were inspired to implement this same structure between the New Paltz community and another college, according to Student Activities & Union Services Director Mike Patterson. Marist, a private institution, was ultimately selected as a result of their differences in image and culture from New Paltz, such as their Catholic origins and socioeconomic status of students, compared to the more progressive, diverse and inclusive makeup of New Paltz students, according to Patterson.
“We wanted students to get out of what they hear every day and allow them to have thoughtful and meaningful conversations around difficult topics, and sometimes that means you have to get outside of what you hear every day and open yourself up in an environment to hear thoughts and opinions other than your own,” Patterson said.
The students who shared their stories at this event were selected from between one to four SUNY New Paltz applicants, whose experiences also differed from other speakers. They were given a speaking time of two to three minutes based on a half-page synopsis that was submitted to the planning committee. New Paltz students then reviewed their submissions with Patterson and worked to format their stories into speeches.
In terms of subject matter, Taijah Pink (New Paltz), the first speaker, brought attention to the idea of hate speech versus free speech and understanding the challenging differences between them.
Edison Hauptman (Marist) spoke next and shared his coming out experience, emphasizing the different senses of humor in human nature and how people tend to “calibrate [their] senses to what people would like.” However, he also stated that he thinks “it would be nice if we didn’t have to offend one another.”
A third student began his speech by asking audience members where they are from, and how a question as such can be perceived as “offensive” to some people. He stressed that the event was about “understanding one another and truly listening.”
The final speaker, Marika Cygert (Marist), structured her speech around the privilege that Americans have by being able to freely express themselves. She compared this to women in Saudi Arabia who do not have this same type of freedom and emphasized that attendees shouldn’t take free speech for granted. Additionally, she expressed the importance of sharing the truth, but also for people— including those in the field of journalism like herself— to be ready to defend their words if questioned.
Following her speech, Cygert shared her story of moving from Poland to the U.S. at the age of two, and how her mother always told her not to censor herself.
“Sometimes it’s the other way around for those who weren’t born here or are immigrants or minorities of some kind, like their parents tell them to stay low and not to make themselves too known,” Cygert said.
After listening to the speakers, attendees then engaged in conversation at their tables of about eight to 10 students. Discussion points revolved around people’s opinions on why free speech is valued in the United States and what they personally value about it; whether or not hate speech should be prohibited on a higher level or even a form of protected expression and more.
“I think the only way that we can grow as individuals is if we hear other people’s perspectives, even if they’re differing from our own,” said fourth-year communications major Amanda Guy from Marist College. “It was definitely a growing experience, because not only do our campuses have two different cultures, but every single person in this room has their own culture.”
A suggestion that was expressed by students is for there to be more interaction between the entire room, not just at the tables, or to have people move around to engage with new perspectives. Some also wished that there was more talking time.
The next events of this series are currently scheduled for the spring semester: the first one will surround the topic of gun control and will be held at SUNY New Paltz on Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020 from 6 to 8 p.m., and the second one will surround the U.S. presidential election and will be held at Marist College on Thursday, March 26, 2020 from 6 to 8 p.m.