Michael Hernandez is president of the Undergraduate Student Government at the University of Connecticut
One week ago, the Undergraduate Student Government’s Governing Board issued a non-binding vote of no confidence in light of my support of free speech legislation and private comments that were published online. This decision has generated confusion and controversy among the student body, so it is important to clarify the nature of this legislation and the context of my comments. More importantly, we need to come together as a student government and campus community to reaffirm our commitment to shared governance, free speech and inclusion at a time when our country is not providing frameworks of civil discourse due to increasing political polarization.
My comments regarding minoritized and marginalized groups were taken out of two contexts. First, my comments were taken out of the context of a private conversation that took place over the course of two days, which ranged from topics such as free speech to the cultural moment we are living in. Second, my comments were taken out of the context of my personal experience. As someone who has experienced marginalization because of my immigration status and ethnicity, I understand the boundaries of free speech and the bigotry that lurks behind many political and civic movements. For instance, one of my family members in Honduras was murdered during a municipal campaign in 2014 for offering a platform that challenged the political orthodoxy and power structure of my hometown. In Honduras and the rest of the world, free speech has a high price. Protecting free speech is deeply personal for me.
Fortunately, I have been able to overcome this family tragedy and my experiences with marginalization by using my voice to advocate for myself and others. Supporting and authoring USG’s free speech legislation is another example of my track record of empowering the most vulnerable members of our community, which includes working on the historic Afford to Dream Act and increasing representation in Stamford’s Advanced Placement classes. I have full faith and confidence that reaffirming free speech in the undergraduate student government and in the campus community at-large will empower all UConn students and help the most marginalized voices resist erasure. The free speech legislation is not a call to bigotry and hate speech but rather a call to speak freely and openly regardless of political orientation and self-identification.
Moreover, free speech is a value that has formed part of the social and political fabric of the United States since its founding. In fact, one of the key functions of universities is to create spaces where students can express themselves openly and freely and learn from each other’s ideas, even if there are disagreements. Thus, USG’s free speech legislation calls for the adoption of the Chicago Statement, which is one of the strongest affirmations of free speech by a major university and has been adopted by 81 institutions nationwide. Indeed, it is no secret that American universities promote values such as free speech. This commitment to speech enables shared governance in the public and private sectors and provides cohesion during times of disagreement and polarization.
In the era of cancel culture, increased polarization and political violence, it will be crucial for universities to protect free speech. The commitment to free speech (and by extension shared governance) starts at the grassroots level with students. It is a difficult conversation to have when our political leaders have abandoned some of these values and turned to partisan and ad hominem attacks. However, we are the new generation committed to the old values, and we have a responsibility to protect spaces such as the undergraduate student government that are built to empower all voices. I have confidence in shared governance, and I have full faith that we can have a conversation about free speech.