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St. John’s Law Hosts School-Wide Dialogue on Charlottesville and Free Speech

Free Speech and the Constitution
Monday, October 2, 2017

The violent protest that erupted at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, VA this August has sparked widespread debate about free speech in America. Recognizing that lawyers play a critical role in upholding fundamental principles of freedom, equality, and justice, St. John’s Law brought students, faculty, and administrators together in September for a dialogue on the topic: After Charlottesville: Shaping Boundaries for the Expression of Polarizing Ideas.

“As an academic community, we must be able to talk to each other,” Dean Michael A. Simons shared to open the program. “We must be able to learn from each other. And that’s what we’re going to do tonight.“ Sponsored by the Ronald H. Brown Center for Civil Rights and the Hugh L. Carey Center for Dispute Resolution, the event was organized with the help of students from the Law School’s:

After Professors John Q. Barrett, Elaine M. Chiu, Elayne E. Greenberg, Rosemary C. Salomone, and Cheryl L. Wade offered their reflections, the participants broke into small groups for facilitated conversations. “The event allowed students to hear different point of views and gain a deeper understanding of how certain speech and actions impact marginalized communities,” says Stephanie S. Tan '18.

Her classmate, Joshua Soares '18, agrees. “The Charlottesville discussion gave people an opportunity to engage in a healthy dialogue about many important issues confronting our country today, such as the freedom of speech, hate speech, white supremacy, and the injustices faced by people of color. Although these are deeply difficult conversations, it’s vitally important to have them, and to use what we learn to make the world a more just place.”

The dialogue about Charlottesville was the latest in a series of community dialogues hosted by St. John’s Law on pressing issues in the national arena. A discussion earlier this year focused on Gender in America. And past dialogues have addressed a range of issues related to race, justice, and the law.

“Three years ago, the Ron Brown Center organized the first school-wide dialogue in response to the failures to hold police accountable in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner killings,” says Professor Chiu, the center’s director. “Since then, our Law School community has embraced this genuine exchange of ideas and perspectives. Our discussion in the wake of the Charlottesville protest was a testament to the great value of respectful, inclusive dialogue, even in response to crisis.”

Professor Greenberg, assistant dean for dispute resolution programs, professor of legal practice, and director of the Carey Center, also recognizes the event’s great value. “The bonds that connect the Law School community were strengthened when our faculty and our students shared their personal reactions to what happened in Charlottesville,” she says. “And, through this candid, illuminating, and sometimes painful discussion, we also developed a deeper appreciation of the privilege and parameters of free speech, an appreciation that is brought home when we personally experience different perspectives respectfully voiced and understood.”