On Monday, April 16, students and faculty gathered in Sykes Theater to discuss contemporary issues concerning free speech on our campus and in broader society. The panel, moderated by Student Government Association (SGA) President Ryan Long, included three SGA members, Rodney Kaplan, Elizabeth Gibson and Alex Garcia, as well as two recent WCU graduates attending the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Tom Mandraccia and Mike Scian.
The panel was divided into two sections which discussed the importance of free speech for learning institutions and potential discrimination.
While discussing free speech on campus, one popular topic was that of Matthew 24, the evangelist group which has come to campus several times to insult students based on various facets of their identity including sexuality, nationality, religious affiliation, amongst others. Mirroring the sentiment of WCU President Fiorentino during a period of multiple Matthew 24 visits, the panel generally agreed that despite the offensive nature of the group, Matthew 24 and similar groups should not be barred from speaking at public places on principle.
Also discussed were issues with censoring college faculty members for offensive writing. One recent story pertaining to this issue comes from Penn Law, where professor Amy Wax was barred from teaching first year courses over racially based comments.
Questions and comments from the audience in this section were sometimes heated, including an audience member who defended his disapproval of homosexual relationships as not homophobic, but the panel stressed to the audience to maintain civility.
The second half of the panel moved to the topic of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission: the Supreme Court case between a Colorado baker who wished to deny service to a gay couple asking for a wedding cake and the gay couple, who felt discriminated against for the denial of service.
The panelists, including with three political science students and two future lawyers, each came to the case with a different perspective. In particular, the applications of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to this case yielded a debate between Kaplan and Mandraccia, who between the two of them were able to disseminate legal terminology in lay terms for the audience effectively.
Also discussed was what gives a business a right to deny service based on religious belief, as the Masterpiece owner was not asked to make a cake with a design of a gay couple, but only denied service when he heard the cake was going to a gay wedding.
The panel generally agreed that artistic cakes like those of Masterpiece’s were a form of speech, and forcing someone to make a message they do not support on a cake is against the First Amendment. However, they argue, in this case there was no message of homosexuality on the cake itself; the design was neutral, and so the denial of service was based solely on the identity of the consumer. The panel agreed that this was discriminatory and not defended by the First Amendment.
Also during the event, the audience was invited to come up with hypothetical power structures and scenarios to apply to the cake debate. Does free speech include design, and if so, which designs would a person have the right to refuse to create?
Would it be legally protected or not for a baker to deny service based on other forms of identity? Some audience members discussed the ramifications of whether or not a baker could refuse to bake a cake for those who hold violent, bigoted views such as Nazis or KKK members. Each scenario presented how the rights to free speech affected social justice and religious rights. Throughout this discussion, students conferred with panelists about what they felt were the boundaries of free speech and how this case has left an impact on the perception of the First Amendment.
Ryan Long ended the panel by telling students to engage in dialogues such as this on campus, as he felt they are of the utmost importance to the intellectual growth of West Chester University and society as a whole. If you wish to hear more about these types of events, follow SGA on social media and keep an ear out for events in Sykes!
Alexander Habbart is a third-year student majoring in mathematics and philosophy. ✉ AH855541@wcupa.edu.