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UConn group to keep pursuing free speech initiative despite student government shutout, threatening messages

"We got ISIS beheading videos sent to us."

University of Connecticut Student Body President Michael Hernández (center) and student senators (left to right) Isadore Johnson and John “Jay” Mosely attempted to introduce student government legislation that would protect students' expressive rights. They quickly learned that free speech is no longer up for discussion at UConn. (Student senator John Ross, who also worked on the legislation, is not pictured.)

When Mike Hernández was campaigning to be the University of Connecticut’s student body president last year, free speech was part of the platform he got elected on. 

“At the time, it was not divisive,” Hernández remembers of his pitch to pass a version of the Chicago Statement — a policy statement emphasizing the importance of freedom of expression at colleges and universities. 

“It was not a big deal.”

But in the last year, the propriety of protecting free speech at UConn — a public university bound by the First Amendment to do so already — has become a very big deal.

Hernández and fellow student senators Isadore Johnson, John “Jay” Mosely, and John Ross worked this year to bring a version of the Chicago Statement — one they’ve dubbed “The UConn Statement” — before UConn’s undergraduate student government for consideration. 

But efforts to even introduce the resolution for discussion became so contentious they had to stop. 

“It became a very controversial issue that unfortunately triggered a lot of attacks against us on social media,” Hernández says. “There were efforts to try to remove me as student body president because I was supporting free speech. It became something very negative, very quickly.”

“We realized,” Johnson says, “that we’re not gonna really make much headway with student government.” 

The men all described a stunning and seismic shift in the free speech climate at UConn. One that has so effectively presented “free speech” as nothing more than a vehicle for “hate speech” — like white supremacy, homophobia and transphobia, and more — that many UConn students who broadly support civil liberties are suddenly wary of doing so publicly for fear of being labeled a bigot. 

'It was an incredible amount of drama,' Hernández says. 'They were calling us racists, and misogynists, and homophobic. We got ISIS beheading videos sent to us. They were using slurs.' Pictured: One such message Hernández received.

“Clearly we know that hate speech is protected by the First Amendment. We know that this stuff has been litigated for a century. We know what speech is protected and what is not,” Hernández says. “We have all these ways that the university addresses hate or violence or violent speech. All those mechanisms exist already.”

Hernández adds, “Their argument is very different from that, though.”

Their argument, as the group describes it, is that because promoting free expression broadly might create an inroad for a small amount of offensive expression, the entire concept of free expression is corrupt and unworthy of discussion. Defend free expression, and you’re promoting hate.

This spring, Hernández and his supporters officially pulled their legislation from consideration after they say the USG violated its own procedures to keep the issue from even being raised for a vote. That’s despite the group having gathered more than 150 petition signatures from students and faculty supporting it. 

“It was an incredible amount of drama,” Hernández says. “They were calling us racists, and misogynists, and homophobic. We got ISIS beheading videos sent to us. They were using slurs.”

He pauses to underscore the irony of receiving what could be construed as a death threat from a student expressing concerns about him supposedly creating a platform for hate speech.

Not groundbreaking

If you’re thinking that this kind of super-heated rhetoric could only have been sparked by a highly unusual piece of legislation, that would be a rational thought.

But that thought would also be wrong.

The UConn Statement is a great free speech statement. But it’s not groundbreaking. 

While it employs gold-standard free speech policy language from the Chicago Statement, the legislation simply serves to underscore the expressive rights UConn students and faculty already have.

Whether UConn has held true to those legally binding Constitutional commitments in recent years, however, is debatable.

“Every time we’re in the national news, it’s because of a free speech issue,” Hernández says.

In 2014, the university made headlines for yanking the scholarship of a soccer player who gave an exuberant middle finger to an ESPNU camera after a nationally-televised tournament win. Unable to continue at UConn without financial assistance, the move amounted to a constructive expulsion. She later sued.

In 2017, in the wake of the racial violence and murder in Charlottesville, Va., the USG unanimously passed a free speech statement — one that appeared to both champion free expression while at the same time purporting to give the university room to discipline speech that expressed “bias” and “limit speech when permitted by law in order to protect public safety and the rights of others.” 

“It was unanimously adopted following some incidents in 2017 regarding free speech where they realized that free speech was being undermined by university actors and other folks on campus,” Hernández says. “However, we don’t think it was robust enough and it doesn't go as far as the Chicago Statement to really have a hard stance and that really clear commitment to protecting free speech.” 

But in just the last year, it seems, UConn administrators have secured an unlikely but powerful ally in their effort to crack down on more protected student speech: UConn students themselves.

Such a statement might have been useful in 2019, when UConn attempted to stretch the bounds of what the law provides by imposing discipline on two students arrested (under a patently unconstitutional turn-of-the-20th-century statute) for using a racial slur.  The students were wandering through a parking lot at the time, apparently getting laughs from shouting all kinds of taboo words to no one in particular. UConn made FIRE’s 2020 Worst Colleges for Free Speech list for helping authorities track down the students using questionable data-monitoring practices and ignoring a longstanding federal court order prohibiting the university from imposing hate speech policies in violation of the First Amendment. The students filed a First Amendment lawsuit, which remains pending.

But in just the last year, it seems, UConn administrators have secured an unlikely but powerful ally in their effort to crack down on more protected student speech: UConn students themselves.

‘A nice little movement…”

Isadore Johnson started drafting free speech legislation with Hernández because he noticed confusion among students about whether so-called “hate speech” was protected speech or not. (It is.) 

“There was no sort of reverence or respect for free expression. My peers don’t really know whether or not burning a flag is protected. They don't really know whether or not hate speech is protected,” Johnson says. 

He thought a bit of education on what the First Amendment actually does could help clear up those misunderstandings.

“I thought this could be a mostly informative thing as opposed to something that would cause major controversy. I thought it would be a nice little movement, that I was sure if everyone thought about it, and worked together, that this would be an achievement that we could all celebrate.”

“My naïveté was definitely challenged.”

Hernández and his supporters say the purported link between free speech and hate speech has been enough to effectively derail discussion of the measure before they have even been able to defend it or describe what it would do.

“We had all these accusations against us before we even said a word about our proposal,” Hernández says.

“There’s just a negative stigma around campus that free speech equals hate speech. And it totally defeats the purpose of what we’re doing,” Ross says. “We’re not advocating for hate speech. You’ll never hear any of us say anything inflammatory or offensive. We’re extremely considerate people. And to demonize our initiative, it totally kills our motive, our momentum.

“People aren’t listening to the actual content of our work,” he says. “They’re just saying ‘What’s the title? “Free speech?” Oh. That’s hate speech.’”

‘I really support what you’re doing, but…’

The men say they have broad support from students they talk to. But those same students fear expressing that support publicly.

The threat of being outed as a free speech supporter at UConn — and cancelled on social media — has become so serious, they feel, that students are unlikely to take part in discussion at all. Certainly not in a public forum before their peers.

The men agree that while all students are free to criticize or demand consequences for speech with which they disagree, the growing popularity of anti-free speech sentiment has troubling implications. 

Screenshot of a social media story
A UConn student posted this criticism of the group's free speech initiative on their Instagram Story, accusing the men of having ulterior motives.

“We were getting all these private messages,” Hernández remembered. “Anonymously someone says, ‘Michael, I really support what you’re doing but, I just can’t publicly say it because I'm really scared of being canceled.’ And then, someone who’s actually working with us also told me in private, he says, “I’m willing to risk my social circle and my place as a person in this university for this.”

“He’s willing to put things on the line for it,” Hernández says. But that just goes to show: “People see this as a risk.”

“There’s a stereotype of being called out by the mob or having the mob try to either ruin your reputation publicly, or try to take something away from you that has value,” says Mosley.

He says this sentiment is becoming more prevalent. 

“There are so many people, too many people, that are afraid to speak their opinion publicly because they fear that they would lose support from their friends, from their peers, to their organizations, or to the jobs that they work in. Especially those who happen to be more liberal and are publicly in support of many activist groups or activist organizations,” he says. “If it was exposed that they disagreed whatsoever with anything, the backlash towards them could be extreme.”

Hernández, a registered Democrat and an immigrant, says he was almost cancelled (“To the point where everyone in the university was worried about me,” he says) and formally censured by the USG for promoting free speech rights of immigrants.  

He says his comments on that issue, surrounding how he would protect UConn minorities from hate speech without violating students’ free speech rights, were badly mischaracterized.

“I’m an immigrant. I've had experiences where I've been discriminated against. I said, ‘There are [existing] ways to fight awful things like discrimination.’ And then, it just became a huge argument to the point I finally said: ‘At some point it's no longer about protection, it’s about empowerment.’ I made a comment saying that, from my experience, the way they were going about protecting minorities seemed like they were ‘treating them like children.’ So, that’s what was used to justify why my free speech stance was so bad.”

Hernández added that the UConn USG has in recent months broadly suppressed views it finds troublesome.

“People with more conservative views are shut down, or they’ve had bias reports filed against them, even when they're not speaking specifically to any identity or to any specific person. They may just be expressing a different political view.”  

Hernández says he, personally, has had seven bias reports filed against him for openly questioning certain political viewpoints.

What students lose

The group of free speech advocates, all rising seniors, plan in their final year at UConn to work with administrators on approving similar legislation.

“If we can find ways of encouraging the administration to see stakeholders for free speech as important members of the community,” Johnson says, “then I think we can make some serious changes.”

Had Hernández and his group been allowed to defend their proposal before the USG, he’d have argued that students lose something of real value when they lose free speech.

They’re not giving up on rallying students to understand the value of free speech on campus, Mosley says. In his experience, it’s something a majority of students could get behind — if only they weren’t so fearful of the critics.

“The people who are in the most opposition to us, aren’t the majority of people, they’re actually the minority of people, but they are the ones that are actually speaking out,” he says. “You have this more radical subgroup that is taking control over the whole narrative of activism against free speech. And you have most of the people staying quiet.”

Had Hernández and his group been allowed to defend their proposal before the USG, he’d have argued that students lose something of real value when they lose free speech.

“The value is that you expose yourself to all these views, and to very different and diverse views. I've actually changed my stance on a lot of things, thankfully, by hearing out how other people view things and how they think about it,” he says.

Hernández and the other senators now plan to direct their efforts to pass free speech legislation to UConn faculty and administrators, who they hope will be more open to discussion.

And for students worried about equality, free speech is one of the most fundamental ways to provide it.

“A lot of people feel comfortable expressing themselves because it aligns with what is the established accepted speech. But what about everyone else? Free speech just provides a more equitable space for people to express themselves.”

Ross says it also provides the opportunity for the major personal growth one expects while attending college.

“I think higher education is the greatest opportunity for exploring what’s out there, seeing other people have different lives than you, who come from backgrounds, different creeds, raised with different morals,” Ross says. “We do ourselves a disservice by not being open to that. Even hearing opinions that you don’t like, or hearing things that can even be offensive, actually help you grow. Because you allow yourself to distinguish right from wrong.”

By missing out on free speech, he says, “students miss out on the opportunity to grow for the better.”

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