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Panelists balance free speech, civility

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Angeline Carbajal | The Daily Wildcat

Former Arizona Rep. Ron Barber talks about freedom of speech from a political standpoint on Wednesday in the Modern Languages building. Barber was part of a panel that discussed the First Amendment and the meaning of freedom of speech in America.

The Dean of Students Office and Councilman Steve Kozachik of Ward 6 hosted a panel titled “Free Speech and Civility: Striking the Balance,” which raised several questions on Wednesday regarding protected and unprotected speech.

The panelists, including Toni Massaro, Kozachik, Kathy Riester and former Congressman Ron Barber answered several questions regarding the First Amendment and how it is implemented at the UA. 

“Freedom of speech, like any other constitutional liberty, is not unbounded,” said Massaro, dean emerita at the James E. Rogers College of Law. “Context matters, as well as content. So does the speaker’s role — what we can say in private, for example, is quite different from what we can say as an employee.” 

Massaro, who provided a legal perspective in Wednesday’s panel, added that individuals need to remember why freedom of speech is a constitutional right. The First Amendment, according to Massaro, was meant to foster knowledge, political engagement and liberty, not just to protect personal autonomy. 

Massaro’s role in the panel was to “assure the audience appreciates the First Amendment basics when confronted with especially violent, vulgar or offensive speech that tests the limits of decency.”

“We live in a pluralistic society, which values both liberty and equality, among other important interests,” Massaro said. “How do we strike the balance?”

Joe Patterson, a UA alumnus, said he decided to attend the panel because he was interested in the First Amendment and violence.

“I’m a psychologist, and I’m very concerned about violence and the kinds of things that lead to violence… and our ability to solve problems in some other way,” Patterson said. 

A friend of Barber’s and member of Kozachik’s Ward, Patterson said that the conversation on freedom of speech and civility is very important.

During the panel, Patterson referred to a bumper sticker he has seen around Tucson that implies a support for guns. 

“We have to find ways to help people, who are civil people, find their voice in ways that can be heard and not be uncivil,” Patterson said. “Beyond that, we have to face a culture that promotes violence. We have movies and television … [and] a culture that says the way that we deal with conflict is through violent action.” 

Additionally, Patterson said it is important to have a counterbalance to the things we see, using Brother Dean’s protests and controversial signs as an example.

“The bigger question is how can we share and express ideas but also make sure that people still feel safe and welcome as part of the campus and Tucson community,” said Riester, associate dean of students.

According to Riester, her role in the panel was to provide insight on how First Amendment rights and expressive speech practices are dealt with at the UA.

“Disrespectful speech may breed disrespect for the speaker, counterspeech and other quite significant nonlegal costs,” Massaro said. “In the age of social media, these costs can be quite severe.”

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