Judge Joseph Cosgrove shed light on the growing issue of free of speech on college campuses.
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Judge Joseph Cosgrove of the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania and adjunct faculty member at King’s College spoke on the hot-button issue of the freedom of speech on college campuses, specifically focusing on the legality of banning protestors or speakers from a college campus. On November 7, 2017, he led the fourth lecture of the 50 Minutes in Focus series in the Burke Auditorium.

Cosgrove’s lecture came less than two months after students at the University of California, Berkeley Campus protested conservative speaker Ben Shapiro. Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter also cancelled their appearances at the campus due to security concerns and the large number of pledged protestors.

At the Shapiro event, nine people were arrested during the protest which raises the question of whether or not it was an infringement of First Amendment rights to the freedom of speech.

Cosgrove began his lecture by stating that this multifaceted issue does not and will never have an easy answer since restrictions on speech are only created in response to speech that has been deemed disruptive and unnecessary to the public condition. Since freedom of speech fosters restriction of speech, the real issue becomes not what citizens are free to speak of, but where the lines are drawn between disruptive and free speech. Most importantly, “who draws these lines and how are they drawn; who makes those distinctions?”

The line between regulation and restriction is a thin tightrope, something that the Founding Fathers were aware of when they penned the United States Constitution. James Madison added the First Amendment to the Constitution to protect citizens exclusively from federal regulations on free speech, thus leaving room for states to choose to limit or protect speech as much as they would like in their own constitutions.

For instance, Pennsylvania heavily protects freedom of speech by including clauses that protected speech from more than just federal government censorship. Pennsylvania also protects its citizens’ rights to openly and freely speak in a public forum or any place that is open to discussions.

The concept of a public forum was challenged in 1981 when Muhlenberg College, a private college in Allentown, attempted to prosecute those who came to protest an invited speaker on campus. After a landmark court case, the courts ruled in favor of the protestors since the college had opened the event for the public, thus making itself a public forum. Since colleges were considered to be public forums, then they had to respect all relevant speakers.

In cases like this, Judge Cosgrove stated, “Just because [a college] don’t want this voice spoken, [they] don’t get to say no.”

In recent years, the issue of free speech has become more prominent on college campuses across America, not only because of the rising number of protests but also due to issues of microaggressions that stem from a difference of opinions. These microaggressions have led to the creation of “safe spaces” at many universities where like-minded people can gather to share their opinions.

However, these “safe spaces” have begun to undermine the entire academic setting since teachers and students are beginning to question whether “a student [can] feel free to say anything they want in a class,” Cosgrove said.

Since teachers and students learn from one another by examining various viewpoints, the notion of “safe spaces” where students can surround themselves with only their own opinions and beliefs seems to undermine the open discussions that are vital to the education system. Cosgrove admits that he doesn’t have any answers to these questions because they do not have straightforward, easy answers.

After his presentation, Cosgrove opened the floor to the audience for a question and answer session.

Aaron Kratz, a junior marketing major, questioned whether the recent protests and the Muhlenberg case actually added restrictions to the freedoms of speech on college campuses by revoking invitations and banning certain speakers from campuses.

Although Cosgrove could not answer this question with a simple yes or no, he did add that there is no court ruling that says that a college has to honor its invitations, nor that they must take every speaker that expresses an interest in speaking at the college.

Another student expressed concerns about the “grey area that surrounds the court case,” questioning, “What public spaces are acceptable for public debate and qualify as a public forum?”

Though Cosgrove could not define all public forums, he did explain that a public forum is a “physical place meant for the sharing of ideas.”

He also added that, in discussions of public forums, there are restrictions on speaking at a “reasonable time, place, and manner.”

For instance, one cannot take a megaphone to a public figure’s home at night to protest a policy and expect not to be arrested due to his or her “freedom of speech” rights.

Along with this idea, Cosgrove added that the “courts and law haven’t caught up to technology yet,” but remarked that the legal system is working to define reasonable time, place, and manner for online forums.

Although Judge Cosgrove could not answer any specifically political or hot-button questions due to his position on the Commonwealth Court, he ended his discussion with some advice: “Just think because that’s the only idea I want to give you all about this.”