ASU students talking at the Student Services Lawn at ASU Tempe campus on National Voter Registration Day 2019

Why free speech is important to Sun Devils

By

Hannah Moulton Belec

It was during her first year at Arizona State University that global studies and justice studies double major Evanna Rouhani attended a workshop through Sun Devil Civility that changed her perspective and got her involved in the group’s work. 

“I loved how much it encouraged me to think critically about my own identities, and about how to create a more inclusive community on campus,” she said.

Rouhani immediately asked to be involved, and now the ASU senior is a team lead for the group, which presents workshops for students, faculty and staff on identity and inclusion, conflict management, sexism and more. 

Recently, part of her work has involved developing a brand-new workshop that focuses on the First Amendment and how it applies on campus. The hourlong sessions are being developed to launch in spring 2021 and are being led by the student members of Sun Devil Civility. 

“We will be emphasizing the power that words have in our workshop,” Rouhani said. “Words have the ability to promote inclusion or to take away from it. Even though we all have the right to free speech, we still need to be thinking about the impact of our words, especially on ASU’s campus, so that we can all be promoting the ASU Charter and making this a place where people feel safe and welcomed.” 

ASU’s Charter states that ASU measures itself not by whom it excludes but by whom it includes and how they succeed. With the diversity of identity and thought on campus also can come differences of opinion. President Michael Crow has emphasized that ASU prioritizes both our charter and the right to free speech on campus. 

“As a public university, we advance our charter within the framework of state and federal policy, including the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provides the right to free speech,” Crow said in a statement on student discourse. “ASU is committed to free, robust and uninhibited sharing of ideas among all members of the university community, and we strive to provide an environment that fosters the fullest degree of intellectual freedom and free expression.” 

This emphasis has been noticed. Arizona State University is ranked in the top five universities for supporting free speech, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE. ASU is the largest school to have earned a “green light” from the organization, which works to defend and sustain the rights of students, faculty and staff. FIRE’s mission is to defend and educate about free speech, due process, legal equality, religious liberty and sanctity of conscience at America’s colleges and universities. Their red, yellow and green light rankings measure whether a college or university’s policies restrict free expression. 

ASU offers resources specific to free speech through the Dean of Students office. Student leaders have further created opportunities for dialogue among their peers around free speech though Sun Devil Civility, student government and student organizations. Through the Dean of Students office, ASU Student Advocacy and Assistance also guides students in resolving any impediments to their academic goals. 

“To me, free speech is directly related to advocacy,” Rouhani said. “Through our ability to practice free speech, we are able to advocate for groups of people who have less privilege than ourselves. It is important that we do not take this lightly, that we reflect on what we want to devote our energies to in terms of advocacy and that we then do so with as much vigor as we can muster.”

Nicole K. Mayberry, a PhD candidate in human and social dimensions of science and technology, said free speech has been important for her experience as a first-generation college student. 

“When I got to ASU almost eight years ago, I really had a very small bubble of what I thought the world was. As I spent more time at ASU and engaged with more people, I realized that there was a bigger world out there, as naive as it seems,” Mayberry said. “So I think engaging with diverse perspectives really just makes your world bigger [and] makes your perspectives more enriched and more enhanced.”

As the vice president of external affairs for ASU’s Graduate and Professional Student Association, Mayberry said she seeks out diverse viewpoints and dialogues through student government and through student organizations. 

“Free speech to me means engaging in discussion and dialogue, whether you have the same viewpoint as somebody or a different one and being able to engage in a conversation openly, respectfully and without feeling like something is going wrong,” Mayberry said. 

Trey Leveque, a senior at ASU studying business, has been a leader in student government, civic engagement and more in his time as a Sun Devil. He said it’s critically important for university students to seek out people you won’t agree with on everything, because that’s when you learn. 

“I’ve experienced as a student leader on campus a lot of organizations that may disagree with each other. And when that happens it’s really important for students, organizations and leaders to come together, share those ideas and be respectful and have a civil dialogue in the process,” Leveque said. “When students are able to have this civil dialogue, students are able to work together, share ideas and have open conversation around things you disagree with. And by disagreeing with one another, they’re able to learn so much more than they would have in any other situation.”

As an artist, ASU senior Amar Camisi said broadening his perspective is something he thinks about when he thinks of free speech. 

“Free speech is important, because as a creative person I feel like I always want to be expressive for the work that I put out, and I always need healthy dialogue, whether it’s between people critiquing my work or the work that I’m putting out,” Camisi said. “Sometimes it may not be reflective of other people’s belief systems, and it’s always just important to be able to have healthy dialogue, healthy discussion, because if we’re all just saying the same things all at the same time it can lead to echo chambers.”

Each of these Sun Devils have a different but important perspective on free speech moving forward from their college years: Camisi wants to own his own art studio someday. Leveque plans to run for office or lead equity efforts in an organization. Mayberry has her eye on academia, and Rouhani plans on pursuing law. Freedom of expression will be as pivotal in their careers as it has been in their collegiate lives. 

Rouhani is excited to share about the importance of civil discourse and free speech through her new workshop to set the tone for a rich and diverse academic life at ASU. 

“Diversity of thought … is so important because the value of different perspectives is immeasurable,” Rouhani said. “When we hear stories of others, we begin to understand them better and then are less likely to act out of a reaction to an unconscious bias, but instead to create real, meaningful relationships with the people in our global community.”