Controversial UConn free speech petition calls for more speech protection

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Earlier this month, a UConn student posted a petition campaigning for stronger free speech protection addressed to UConn and USG. Photo by Markus Winkler on Pexels.com

Earlier this month, a University of Connecticut student posted a petition campaigning for stronger free speech protection at UConn, addressed to UConn and the Undergraduate Student Government.

Isadore Johnson, a UConn training director and creator of the petition, called for UConn to adopt the Chicago Statement, a free speech policy statement produced by the Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago, according to a Fire.org article. 

Johnson was inspired to create this petition after witnessing discrimination against Trudi Bird, an adjunct within UConn’s English department.  

“I have taught business writing (ENGL1012W) at UConn out of the English department at UConn for many years. I also taught an analogous course through the school of business for more than a full year,” Bird said in an email. “I have been cut from the roster, my only earned income, because of alleged and adjudicated prejudicial religious actions and behavior against a student.” 

According to Forbes Magazine, the University of Chicago released the “Report on Free Expression,” now known as the “The Chicago Statement” in 2015 to argue for free expression. 

“Fundamental commitment to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral or wrong-headed,” the report said.. 

Johnson’s petition had 97 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon. A petition update from Feb. 21 clarified the usage of petition signatures as well as thanked supporters of the petition.  

“A lot of people have expressed frustration with free expression, and your signature means a lot to many who feel scared of signing themselves.”

“I’m planning on using this list of names to sponsor legislation that says what this petition says verbatim,” Johnson wrote, “A lot of people have expressed frustration with free expression, and your signature means a lot to many who feel scared of signing, themselves. You’re making a really big difference.” 

Glenn Prushinski, a fourth semester economics and political science double major and the UConn College Republicans Vice President, said that his organization welcomes the free speech discourse.  

“We support USG’s free speech resolution that calls on the university to adopt the principles of the Chicago Statement,” said Prunhinski, “I also testified last Thursday in front of the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee at the CT General Assembly in favor of H.B. 5108, An Act Requiring Institutions of Higher Education to Establish a Policy Regarding Free Speech On Campus.”  

Michael Cerulli, President of the Connecticut College Democrats, also testified in favor, according to an email from Prushinski, and both the UConn College Republicans and the Connecticut College Democrats hope to work together on the issue in the future.  

In the 2017 UConn’s “Report of the Task Force on Free Speech and Civility,” free speech limitations were discussed and upheld. The report was carried by former UConn President Susan Herbst, and was reaffirmed by current President Thomas Katsouleas. 

“The University of Connecticut is permitted to, and will, limit expression in order to protect public safety and the rights of others,” the task force wrote. “This includes expression that is defamatory, threatening or invades individual privacy. Protected speech may also be reasonably regulated as to the time, place, and manner of the expression.” 

The 2017 report, which was unanimously approved by the UConn senate, also included limitations on freedom of speech based on bias related incidents and discriminatory hate speech. 

“Bias related incidents, as defined in this protocol, are not tolerated at the University of Connecticut and individuals who are victims of bias related incidents may be protected through the Student Code and Connecticut laws related to discrimination, harassment or intimidation based on bigotry or bias.” 

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