On Minnesota campuses, free speech rights up for debate

Students on the mall
University of Minnesota students are debating the place of protest when they hear what they consider hate speech.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News 2015

On university and college campuses across the country, speakers have been shouted down, interrupted and protested. Recently, the University of Minnesota's president called it a form of bullying and urged students to respect opposing points of view.

Last month, conservative journalist Milo Yiannopoulos spoke at the University of Minnesota. He's well known for provoking controversy.

He was interrupted three times during his talk by air horns.

More than a dozen campus police officers were on hand to escort protesters out and keep others from entering.

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A conservative campus organization, Minnesota Republic, set up the Yiannopoulos talk. Blake Krausel was at the door, greeting guests.

"If they wanted to be in here and respectfully listen and ask questions at the end, I encourage it," he said. "They're more than welcome to voice their opinions outside. As long as it's not disrupting the speech, the speakers, then we have no problem with it. They're more than welcome to protest."

Skyler Dorr with Students for a Democratic Society was outside the auditorium holding a sign and shouting as people walked in.

"So there's this idea that we're opposing free speech, which is ridiculous," Dorr said. "What we're really doing is just using our right to free speech and free assembly."

Two weeks later, President Eric Kaler devoted some of his state of the university speech to a trend he doesn't like.

Eric Kaler
In his state of the university speech, U president Eric Kaler urged students to respect opposing points of view.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News 2015

"I am opposed to hate speech of any kind. While the university encourages all members of the community to speak with respect and understanding of others, we should not forbid speech that shocks, hurts or angers. We must not tolerate the shouting down of points of view as we've seen in our community in recent months," he said.

But some contend shouting down or rejecting speakers altogether is a form of protected speech.

Greg Magarian is a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis. He said civil debate is essential.

"But, at the same time, when those flashpoints occur, when those clashes occur, yeah, of course that stimulates thinking and argument and discussion. So, there's a paradox," he said.

St. Olaf College political science professor Dan Hofrenning, who heads the school's Institute on Freedom and Community, said protest, in many cases, has been a key in making changes and starting conversations.

"If some particular political perspective is consistently ignored, you can understand where people feel like they have to try other tactics to get heard," Hofrenning said.

St. Olaf used a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to address the issue of debate and political discourse. The school hosts debates on hot button issues such as race and policing. The debates also serve to show students how to engage in civil debate.

Outside the Yiannopoulos talk at the U of M, junior Connor Mikry stood near two dozen protesters. He held a sign.

"So my sign reads, is there a liberal ideology so fragile that we can't let him speak?"

Mikry said he detests Yiannopoulos' views.

"I just don't want us to get to the point where we're able to shut down anybody that will have views that are too far to one direction," he said.

After the three air horn blasts, Yiannopoulos' talk continued without more disruptions.