UConn Students Fighting for Broader Free Speech Protections Face Backlash on Campus
“The University of Connecticut is permitted to, and will, limit expression in order to protect public safety and the rights of others,” states the university’s official policy regarding campus speech, adopted in 2017. “This includes expression that is defamatory, threatening, or invades individual privacy. Protected speech may also be reasonably regulated as to the time, place, and manner of the expression.”
To Isadore Johnson, a rising senior at the University of Connecticut (UConn), this didn’t sound like a very free speech–friendly policy at all.
Johnson—a founder of UConn’s Students for Liberty (SFL) chapter—delights in debating and befriending people he disagrees with across the political spectrum. So he was dismayed by the university’s statement and worried it would be misinterpreted by students to shut down speech with which they disagree.
“I think many universities, including UConn, take it for granted that students appreciate the protections and values of open discourse and discussion,” Johnson tells Reason. “Many students do not, and it is incumbent on the university to clarify and explain such values so students know what rights are protected. The right to argue vigorously and sometimes offensively is part of our civic culture, and students ought not be protected against that.”
Johnson was determined to improve free speech rights on his campus, no matter the social cost. That commitment was put to the test after a statement he proposed to the student government to protect freedom of speech on campus created a storm of outrage from his peers.
The proposed statement on the freedom of speech and expression—submitted to the undergraduate student government last spring by Johnson, other members of the SFL chapter, and student body President Michael Hernández—was based on the well-regarded Chicago Statement. It includes quotes from free speech advocates across history, such as academic Michael Poliakoff and philosopher John Stuart Mill.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education said the students’ “UConn Statement” employs “gold-standard free speech policy language” but nothing “groundbreaking.” Nonetheless, Johnson and his friends received significant and sometimes vitriolic pushback from their peers on campus.
In a number of public Instagram stories, opponents of the statement called Johnson, Her
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