Siena gears up for free speech conference

COLONY – Organizers of a free speech conference at Siena College insist they want Sunday’s event to be civil and thoughtful. We do not know if they will achieve their wish.

The conference features several prominent and controversial figures in conservative and libertarian politics, including self-proclaimed political “dirty trickster” Roger Stone.

The weeks leading up to the Siena event were marked by the types of controversies that witnessed similar gatherings on campuses across the country. Among the questions raised: Should we limit the number of people who can be invited to speak on campus?

In a recent interview, the presidents of the three conservative campus organizations behind the event made it clear that they didn’t want this to turn into a chaotic melee, let alone riots sparked by recent visits to the event. ‘alt-right. figures at the University of California’s Berkeley campus.

“The aim of the conference is to educate students about freedom of expression, how it affects them and its importance for their country,” said Antonio Bianchi, junior of Siena, president of Turning Point Siena .

Bianchi hosted the event with Alec Barkett, president of the Siena College chapter of Young Americans for Liberty, and Michael Bove, president of Siena’s College Republicans.

All said they focused on inviting speakers who could talk about free speech from multiple angles and help balance what they saw as a liberal tilt among former speakers on campus.

Stone is expected to discuss free speech on social media. The longtime political adviser, lobbyist and author was recently banned from Twitter. Special Advocate Robert Mueller has been investigating Stone’s contacts with Wikileaks in connection with the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race, according to numerous recent reports.

James O’Keefe, who will speak on free speech in the media, heads a Mamaroneck-based nonprofit called Project Veritas. The conservative provocateur has made his career trying to expose what he describes as liberal media bias and left-wing hypocrisy, frequently through undercover videos.

The group has been denounced for its disappointments. Last fall, a Project Veritas member named Jamie Phillips approached The Washington Post with his account of an affair with Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama, whose campaign was reeling from multiple allegations of his. relationships with underage girls. Phillips told the Post – which broke the original story about Moore’s relationship with underage girls – that he pregnant her when she was a teenager.

The Post exposed his ruse in a story that included a video of its reporter confronting Phillips about his deception.

Other Sunday speakers include Christian Ragosta, a field coordinator for the National Rifle Association; Austin Petersen, a libertarian political candidate; Nico Perrino, communications director of the Foundation for the Rights of the Individual in Education; and Kassy Dillon, founder of the Lone Conservative website.

Payments to lecturers are paid with student activity fees. It is only open to people with a valid Siena ID card.

There will be a protest outside the conference, and students and faculty plan to attend to pose tough questions to speakers, said Jim LaValle, president of the Siena Democrats’ Club. He said he encouraged those inside and outside the conference not to be disruptive.

“Use your First Amendment rights the way they use it – but don’t put anything across the line, don’t incite anything,” he said.

Bianchi said he contacted other student organizations to invite them to participate in the event, but none agreed.

LaValle, however, said no one had reached out to his group.

“Why is it now just a platform for conservative speakers and pundits who have a turbulent history marked with racist and inflammatory comments?” ” he said. “Why have we never had the opportunity to provide a different point of view? “

And there was also a decline on the part of the teachers. Jenn McErlean, professor of philosophy, resigned from a committee that had been formed to develop methods of civil speech on campus because she did not want to work with students like Bianchi, according to an email sent to the Times Union .

Roy Gutterman, director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University’s SI Newhouse School of Public Communications, said in today’s politically charged national climate, college campuses are a precarious place for free speech.

“There is not a lot of tolerance,” he said.

There is also a belief in some conservative circles that the right to speak of right-wing students is more likely to be restricted in the name of “political correctness.”

“There is some validity behind it,” Gutterman said. “When you see people who think they’re being censored or punished, they’re usually right-wing politicians, and that seems to be the way college campuses have evolved. “

These issues were discussed for two days in “Shall Make No Law: An Exploration of Current First Amendment Issues on College Campuses,” a two-day session hosted Wednesday and Thursday by Albany State University. and organized by the Office of the General Counsel of the SUNY System. A round table was entitled “Campus Unrest – The New Normal? “

In Siena, Bianchi, Barkett and Bove pointed out that the school administration has supported them since they started planning the event at the start of last semester. The pushback, they said, came from the faculty.

“And we had to clarify to them: even if you don’t like some of the people who come to this conference, neither do we,” Bianchi said. “We don’t agree with everything people at this conference have done or said.”

Siena College President Elder F. Ed Coughlin has said conferences and events like this are a balancing act.

“You’re still trying to deal with this tension,” he said. because of their reputation, have values ​​that are very opposite or in contrast to the values ​​of the college? “

Gutterman, who also teaches journalism and media ethics in Syracuse, said private colleges such as Siena have much more leeway in deciding how to handle free speech issues on campus than public universities.

“I think you can’t have a college education without freedom of speech,” he said. “Just because someone brings a speaker to campus doesn’t mean you believe what they say. “

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