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Guest speaker discusses free speech and expression on college campuses

Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, from the UC Berkeley School of Law, shares his thoughts on what free speech should look like on university campuses

Waves of rally memebers march over Palm Walk Overpass toward Tooker Lawn at the Tempe Campus on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023.

ASU's University Design Institute hosted UC Berkeley School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky to speak on free expression and using the First Amendment on college campuses as part of the Frank Rhodes Lecture Series.

The Frank Rhodes Series was created in 2011 and invites academic scholars to speak on various topics that will "challenge, disrupt and redefine the status quo." Chemerinsky, who has taught constitutional law for more than 40 years and published several legal books, was invited by ASU President Michael Crow to speak on free speech after months of controversial conversations across the University.

"This is … one of our most highly attended lectures in recent years," Minu Ipe, the lecture moderator, said. "The topic is relevant and timely."

At ASU, the use of speech and expression has been the center of attention with public demonstrations about the continued conflict in the Israel-Palestine region and controversial figures visiting campus. However, Chemerinsky said these free speech issues are nothing new in university spaces. 

"As long as there have been colleges and universities, there have been difficult issues with regard to free speech," Chemerinsky said. "The very core of the First Amendment is that the government can never prohibit an idea or viewpoint expressed, even if it's a very deeply offensive idea or viewpoint."

READ MORE: ASU community calls on ASU to take further action against Turning Point USA

Students asked the dean about how colleges can balance speech and how to protect and ensure the safety of students. 

"I'm constantly hearing from my students that ‘I feel unsafe,' and what I tried to do is say, 'tell me why you feel unsafe, and tell me what it is that you need us to do,'" Chemerinsky said. "If it's about emotional safety, there I've got to say, 'we can't protect you from the things that offend you.'"

Cancel culture and censorship were brought up, and it was questioned what universities should do. Chemerinsky spoke about an issue that occurred at his campus where 11 students heckled and shouted at former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren. He said the students had to be escorted out, prompting the dean to send an email reminding students about what actions the First Amendment protected and what was not sanctioned by the University and the law. 

"There is no First Amendment right to use speech to silence others," Chemerinsky said. "If you don't like a speaker, have a non-disruptive protest. If you don't like a speaker, invite your own, but you can't engage in 'canceling' by speaking in a way that others can't be heard."

Valerie Hoekstra, a law professor who teaches constitutional law, said she agreed with Chemerinsky’s opinions about how college students should act when faced with opposing viewpoints. 

"Just because something is offensive to people and it might be questioned, college students are adults," Hoekstra said. "We need to grapple with uncomfortable topics." 

Hoekstra continued by saying she welcomed opposing views on campus because it could challenge people's stances. 

"We're a public university in the middle of one of the biggest cities in the country, and we have people all the time expressing their views," Hoekstra said. "That's fantastic. It is the free marketplace of ideas."

Edited by Alysa Horton, Walker Smith and Angelina Steel.

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