A recent petition for free speech has proved to be controversial in the Undergraduate Student Government at the University of Connecticut.
The petition, which was started by sixth semester economics major Isadore Johnson, aims to have USG adopt the ‘Chicago Statement’. The ‘Chicago Statement’ is a statement made by The Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago in 2014 which pledges UChicago’s commitment to free speech on the campus.
The online petition is a copy of the legislation Johnson is looking to have passed by USG. According to Johnson, the petition was started to demonstrate popular support for the legislation. At time of publishing, Johnson’s petition has 157 signatures.
Johnson said he began working on the petition because he was worried about the campus culture being unwilling to hear new ideas.
“Part of a university’s mission is to subject students’ preconceived notions to harsh and unrelenting scrutiny. Only by doing this, will students learn to think critically, and be conscious and engaged citizens of the world,” Johnson said. “In practice, this means people should not expect to feel intellectually comfortable in college.”
Johnson said he started writing about this issue in the fall of 2020, and then developed the legislation with the help of junior Student Body President Michael Hernández. For Hernández, the Chicago Statement was a key part of his campaign in fall 2020.
“I was inspired to pursue a free speech bill during my campaign for President after hearing concerns from students about the suppression of speech based on their political orientation. I made the Chicago Statement one of the three pillars of campaign along with mental health and institutional change,” Hernández said.
Hernández said part of the motivation for the creating the legislation was fear around marginalized voices being silenced
“In our view, free speech is more than a right. It is also a value, and given the lack of civil discourse in the current political context of the country it is more important than ever for students to reaffirm this value,” Hernández said. “I care about free speech because I grew up in a country without free speech and I understand that we are privileged in this country to be able to enjoy that right.”
As for why go through USG in particular, Johnson said he was worried about the environment of the organization, and whether it was representative of the will of its constituents.
“There have been 3 presidents of USG in the last academic year. That’s a sign that there’s serious cultural problems behind the scenes,” Johnson said.
This legislation has not gone without pushback, however. Kazi Iqbal is a fourth semester music education major and a candidate for School of Fine Arts senator in an uncontested race. Iqbal is one of the students affiliated with USG who opposes the legislation. Iqbal said he sees some merits in the argument presented in the free speech legislation, specifically that USG should address internal cultural issues.
“There are some legitimate concerns brought up by the discourse around this bill. Some people have argued that USG has been a closed-off, elitist organization, and I agree with that wholeheartedly,” Iqbal said.
That being said, Iqbal had hesitations about the true motivations of the bill.
“Given the timing and the authors of this bill, I think that it is simply an attempt to undermine the atmosphere that USG is trying to create especially after multiple acts of hate around campus,” Iqbal said.
According to the Dean of Students’ Office, on Feb. 18, a swastika was found on the wall of a bathroom in the Biophysics Building. On Feb. 19, a racial slur was found written on a bathroom wall in the same building.
The number of bias related-incidents at UConn has increased every year in the past four years, according to WFSB.
Iqbal also pointed to recent problems within USG as a contributing factor as to why he opposes this bill.
“The authors of this bill argue that disagreeing with Defunding UCPD and similar opinions does not constitute racism. But, they also argue that when someone bias reports a senator for saying that “All Lives Matter is not racist”, or denounces them for saying that all speech, including hate speech, is free speech, those actions suddenly constitute censorship,” Iqbal said.
Johnson referenced similar issues as indicative of the necessity for the bill.
“One of my friends who was a part of the senate, was removed for several months for claiming that ‘All Lives Matter’ was not necessarily racist. He didn’t make a claim threatening anybody, and yet was punished with impunity, and little regard for constitutional protections,” Johnson said.
For Iqbal, the drawbacks of the legislation outweigh the positives, especially in light of the recent bias incidents.
“I believe that giving someone a platform to speak even though you know that their words are hateful and detrimental to the community is irresponsible, and we have no business specifically protecting that kind of speech,” Iqbal said. “This is a thinly veiled attempt to embolden racist and sexist microaggressions under the guise of free speech that contributes nothing that isn’t already enshrined in USG and university policies.”