A bipartisan informational debate on free speech was held by the College Democrats and College Republicans in Gilbertson 117 on Tuesday, April 17.
The debate focused on subjects like government regulation of speech and political activity on campuses. The debaters began with opening statements before covering several points, then moving into a question-and-answer session with the audience.
The College Republicans were represented by Luke Derheim and Cameron Bruneau, and the College Democrats were represented by Hunter Koch and Ali Shaina.
Political science professor Erik Trump moderated the debate. Trump supplied the debaters with questions and kept the discussion focused on the topic of free speech.
A crowd of over 20 students attended the event, many of them unaffiliated with either the College Democrats of Republicans. Audience members were asked to write questions down beforehand so Trump could offer them to the debaters.
Opening remarks from Derheim and Bruneau took an anti-regulation stance focused on democratic norms and the importance of defending all types of speech.
“Freedom of speech is central to any free society,” Derheim said. “Unregulated speech is needed to ensure that democratic norms can survive and thrive, and any attempt to restrain speech is corrosive to those democratic norms.”
Bruneau took up the argument in his own opening remarks, focusing on where the line for protected speech should be drawn.
“The regulation of hate speech is an extremely dangerous precedent if that were to happen,” Bruneau said. “This isn’t to say that incitement to violence is OK; that’s already illegal, and it should be.”
The College Democrats’ opening remarks also expressed respect for free speech and democratic values.
“Free speech is a cornerstone of our society,” Koch said. “It goes beyond the right to be heard; it also allows us to shape our society. … Speech is an agent for positive changes in our communities, and the regulation of any sort of speech, whether it be what we consider to be good speech or bad speech, hinders the progress of our society.”
Shaina concurred in her opening remarks.
“We thrive on having free speech in this country and being able to voice what we feel,” Shaina said. “Without having regulation on this, we are able to accomplish so much more as a society and be so much more productive.”
After opening remarks, Trump joked about the difficulties of moderating a debate where the opposing sides agreed on so much. He then moved on to several questions that tested each side’s views on free speech.
Trump then brought a matter of local controversy into the debate, citing a high-profile case of Michigan high school students flying Confederate flags from their trucks on school grounds.
“It was a wasted opportunity,” Derheim said, referring to the high school administration’s suppression of students’ speech rights in the wake of the controversy. “… The school completely wasted the opportunity to have an actual discussion by just stomping on something and creating even more hostile feelings.”
Koch also criticized the school’s response and noted that with the subject being in the news again at Bay City Western High School, debates over student speech will continue in Michigan.
Attendees seemed to enjoy the entire discussion, and many stuck around to discuss the topic after the debate ended.
“What debate?” said Daniel Visnovsky, a political science junior, jokingly referring to the large amount of agreement between the two sides. “It was in a way refreshing to see that they weren’t going at each other a lot, but at the same time, perhaps a more strenuous or issue-oriented battery of questions would be more helpful.”
Organizers hope to make these types of debates a regular staple on campus and hope to cover a variety of issues.
“One of the best way to get people involved is to talk about the issues,” Bruneau said. “I’d really like to get to having this type of event twice a semester. … The turnout was really great to see, and I think next time we’ll have to reserve a bigger room.”