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Safety summit panel focuses on balancing free speech, public safety

Conversations about the difficult work of balancing free speech with public safety took center stage at the second annual Utah Campus Safety Summit at the University of Utah March 20. 

“Without stating the obvious, we live in a time when divisive social debates are playing out on college campuses across the country,” said Marina Lowe, the Policy Director for Equality Utah, while moderating a lunchtime panel. “Universities have historically, and continue to be, institutions that deeply value free expression.”

The conflict in Israel and Gaza—and resulting protests, harassment and threats on U.S. college campuses—requires campus safety operations to walk a delicate balance, panelists said.

In his opening remarks at the summit, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox addressed the way global events are shaping the challenges university administrators have to address on their campuses. 

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at the second annual Utah Campus Safety Summit at the University of Utah on March 20.

“Something changed after October 7, even though it happened a world away,” Cox said. “Both of the Muslim and Jewish communities in Utah feel less safe than they have felt in a long time on our campuses.” 

Cox said the students he is talking with care about their peers of other religions and want to work to understand each other, but they also feel like there is a schism that’s happening.

“They are worried about their safety, whether real or perceived. That’s deeply problematic and something we have to work on. We want them to be safe,” he said “And we know that we have to work together to do that.” 

Coordinated by the U’s Department of Public Safety at the Cleone Peterson Eccles Alumni House, the summit featured a wide variety of keynote addresses and breakout sessions focused on ensuring everyone in campus communities across the state is kept safe. Breakout sessions addressed topics such as preventing hazing on campus, keeping pedestrians safe, and understanding intimate partner violence in the LGBTQ+ community. 

The panel Lowe moderated—“Threading the Needle: Protecting First Amendment Rights While Fulfilling Out Obligation to Ensure the Safety of Persons and Property on Our Campuses”—featured experts from the University of Utah’s campus and the community at large. The panelists discussed the difficulty in drawing lines between what speech is protected and what is not, especially when it comes to issues of safety. 

Michele Ballantyne, associate general counsel at the University of Utah, explained that under Utah law, all outdoor spaces at the U are public forums and must be protected for free expression. However, some forms of speech are not protected under the First Amendment, she noted, including threats, intimidation, or imminent incitement of violence.

“Imminent means you really could incite violence right now,” Ballantyne said. “And you have an audience that is ready to act on those words.” Because of this, she noted, the interpretation of what speech falls into this category is relatively narrow. 

West Jordan City Police Chief Ken Wallentine said as he and other officers decide whether or not speech is protected, they “draw that line pretty close to harm.”

“We are the ones who try to expand opportunities for free speech as much as we can by not limiting the activities therein,” Wallentine said. 

U Dean of Students Jason Ramirez speaks on a panel during the second annual Utah Campus Safety Summit at the University of Utah on March 20.

When it comes to expanding opportunities for free speech on campus, Jason Ramirez, associate vice president and dean of students at the U, said campus leadership is working to ensure the school follows the requirements for creating a neutral environment for speech as outlined in a recent resolution from the Utah Board of Higher Education. 

“We are trying to create spaces where we aren’t delivering the answers to students. Instead, we are allowing space for the different ideas that are comingto our campuses and allowing students to build their own judgments and decisions,” Ramirez said. “As I look at neutrality, what that means is, we are creating the space for all identities.”

Ramirez also said that protesting on campus is an opportunity for administrators to step back and “listen more” to students. 

“I think there is a true generational gap that’s occurring at the moment, where the approach of students is very different from administrators,” Ramirez said. “I think our lack of understanding is actually hurting our communication with the very students we are trying to serve.”

According to Ramirez, ignoring the gap and letting it widen will prevent university leadership and administrators from adequately serving students. 

“We have to hear them and the messages that they are giving us, not the messages that we want to hear,” he added. 

Read more about last year’s session here