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NIU panel discusses impact of First Amendment on public dialogue

DeKALB – A Yale University professor and researcher told audience members at a community diversity discussion Wednesday that the Constitution grants the right to free speech, but not with impunity or without responsibility, he said.

“It is vitally important that we learn how to disagree without delegitimizing each other,” said Frederick M. Lawrence, who is considered an expert on civil rights, free expression and bias crimes.

Lawrence was part of a four-member panel that Northern Illinois University officials assembled to discuss the First Amendment, as part of the first in what is scheduled to be an ongoing series of community dialogues expected to center on diversity and inclusion.

“I hope that [the public] realizes that this is a place where we can come together and have honest dialogue ... that would advance us as a community, in terms of diversity and inclusion,” said Vernese Edghill-Walden, NIU’s chief diversity officer.

Plans to hold the public discussions were born out of a diversity task force that made recommendations to university leaders on how to meld the splintered resources on campus that help address issues of racial, ethnic, gender and cultural diversity, as well as inclusion.

The task force had also
recommended creating a diversity officer position. As a result, Edghill-Walden was hired in the role last summer. Wednesday’s event was one of the first major programs her newly created office produced.

Yolanda King, a Chicago attorney and NIU associate professor of law, moderated the event, which was held in the Sandburg Auditorium in the Holmes Student Center on campus. Also on the panel were Mark Cordes, the interim dean of NIU’s law school, and NIU student association members Timothy Brandner and Arielle Owens.

The discussion opened with three questions from King, then shifted to queries from the audience.

“The First Amendment means to me that I have to tolerate a lot of speech that I strongly dislike,” Cordes said in response to one of the questions. “Toleration, though, doesn’t mean silence.”

The audience questioned how freedom of speech impacted a myriad subjects.

Romeo Jackson, a senior majoring in social justice, was among the students in the audience who posed questions to the panel. The 22-year-old, who said he is a member of the LGBTQ community, said he has been the victim of derogatory comments about his sexuality.

“Racism and homophobia will ultimately be bankrupt,” Lawrence said.

DeKalb District 428 school board member Howard Solomon’s question touched on freedom of religion.

The issue of a right-to-assemble ordinance that the DeKalb City Council had considered was raised by Tamara Boston, a counseling and adult higher education graduate student.

Each of the panelists responded to audience questions, giving their opinion on how far the constitutional protections went.

NIU officials said that the conversations will continue, with other community dialogues scheduled in the near future.

“We really believe that NIU can be a model for how people should treat each other,” NIU President Doug Baker said. “Similarly, in our community, I believe DeKalb and Sycamore can be known for honest dialogues on difficult issues.”

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