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Encouraging civic engagement

The Academic Freedom Committee will host a series of campus events.

In a time when the line between truth and disinformation becomes increasingly blurred, the University of Utah is looking to strengthen its role as a leader of encouraging civic engagement on and off campus.

Since its formation in the fall of 2021, members of the Academic Freedom Committee have dedicated their time to exploring ways to reaffirm the university’s commitment to unfettered intellectual inquiry, the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge, and the value of free speech. To that end, the committee is planning a series of events and activities to address contemporary sociocultural and First Amendment topics at the U.

The first event will be speaker Richard Hasen, an election law expert, who will discuss his book, “Cheap Speech: How Disinformation Poisons Our Politics and How to Cure It” on Sept. 23 from 12-1 p.m. at the Hinckley Institute Caucus Room. All are invited, and more events will be forthcoming.

“Our grand vision is that this is something that students, as well as faculty and staff, will talk about—the meaning of civic engagement, the meaning of free speech,” said Interim Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Martell Teasley, co-chair of the committee. “People have paid the price for this over time, similar to the right to vote, so the free speech we have today is a path that was paved by others. We need to respect that and remember that as we move forward into the future.”

The committee, which includes members from the College of Law; Associated Students of the University of Utah (ASUU); Department of Communication; Hinckley Institute of Politics, Marriott Library; Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion; and the College of Nursing, chose to invite Hasen to speak at the committee’s inaugural event as part of Constitution Week, in honor of the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. In 2004, Congress mandated that schools and colleges in the U.S. that receive federal money must have an educational program about the Constitution for its students. The recognition takes place on Constitution Day, Sept. 17, in commemoration of the signing of the Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787, or during that week, known as Constitution Week.

The right to free speech, freedom of the press and freedom of religion are established in the First Amendment of the Constitution. These freedoms are essential in education, even if it means people will disagree with each other, says Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics and member of the committee.

“We want to make sure that on campus, all voices are heard and people feel comfortable sharing their opinion,” Perry said. “So many times, we look at controversial issues and it’s not helpful if everyone thinks the same or has the same opinion.”

As opinions surrounding reproductive health, Critical Race Theory and climate change become increasingly polarized, there is a need to keep conversations alive, respectful and informative, said Paul Cassell, a former federal judge and Distinguished Professor of Law in the S.J. Quinney College of Law. As the state’s flagship university, the U is positioned to provide opportunities for students and professors to have positive dialogue about difficult topics.

“The larger goal here is to ensure that students, faculty and staff at the U are well-positioned to know how to discuss hot-button topics, and at the end of the day, walk away from those discussions in an amicable way, with both sides having learned something useful,” said Cassell, who is also co-chair of the committee.

Shortly after the Academic Freedom Committee was formed by President Taylor Randall as part of the Operation Bold Transition Plan, the committee researched potential complaints about academic freedom that may have been filed with the Academic Senate. They looked for complaints that would show whether a faculty member’s freedom to research or publish had been violated, based on the subject matter.

In a five-year period, only one complaint was filed. The complaint was ultimately determined not to be a violation of academic freedom, said committee member Allyson Mower, scholarly communication and copyright librarian at the Marriott Library. The library will be hosting discussions and exhibits throughout the year to further explore the dynamic between freedom of speech and academic freedom.

“Free speech and academic freedom are closely related, but they are each their own concepts,” Mower said. “Maybe what can happen through these exhibits and these speakers is making that connection more solid. A professor has their own rights in examining their own ideas, but also an additional responsibility to establish a learning environment that would allow a student to do their own examinations.”