Free speech issues dominate inaugural Wake Forest Law Review Fall Symposium

Words matter. Language matters. Those are just a few conclusions drawn from the Wake Forest Law Review’s inaugural Fall Symposium on Oct. 31 that focused on free speech issues.

Hosted by the Wake Forest University School of Law, the Women’s and Gender Studies program and the Provost’s Office, “Equality-based Perspectives on the Free Speech Norm: 21st Century Considerations” resulted in an international and interdisciplinary discussion of how a commitment to free speech should intersect with a commitment to equality, diversity and multiculturalism under the U.S. Constitution.

“The acumen of our presenters coupled with the dynamism of the audience made our inaugural fall symposium an unmitigated success,” said Shannon Gilreath (JD ’02), Wake Forest Fellow for the Interdisciplinary Study of Law, professor for interdisciplinary study at the law school and director of the event. “With attention and care, our presenters showed that language matters, that words matter — as more than mere abstractions. Our conference and published symposium issue will inevitably raise the profile of more critical approaches to First Amendment free speech theory and provide important alternatives to the absolutist perspective. It is a valuable contribution to an already-rich field of discourse.”

The symposium, which was sponsored by the Wake Forest Law Review, featured keynote speaker Professor Kathleen Mahoney.

Mahoney, who is a professor at the University of Calgary, presented: “The Free Speech Debate: Whatever Happened to the Equal Rights Perspective?” Mahoney has helped secure several landmark women’s rights and speech cases in the Supreme Court of Canada, including the case banning pornography on equality grounds.

Since the 1960s, Canadian law has improved controls on hate speech, which were recently broadened to include sexual orientation and the internet. That is in part because in 1999 there was one hate group online; today there are 6,000, Mahoney explained.

“Today racism and hate speech are globalized,” she said. “The challenge has become an international one. The goal is to replace a culture of hate with respect.”

The symposium also included two panel discussions: “Democracy & the Limits of Speech” and “Teaching Hate?: Confronting Assaultive Speech in Schools & Education,” featuring a lineup of U.S. and international scholars, who are well-known as inventive and imaginative thinkers in the areas of constitutional law and minority rights. Read more about the panelists and their topics.

A conversation of this type was particularly timely and was especially relevant to students and scholars of constitutional law and the First Amendment. The catalyst for the symposium, Harper v. Poway Unified School District (9th Circuit Court of Appeals, upholding a ban on anti-identity speech in schools on equality grounds), marks the first time in recent history that a court has embraced a decidedly victim-centered approach to interpreting the First Amendment. The case, which dealt specifically with homophobic speech in public schools, is an opportunity, especially in light of recent upsurges in racism, sexism, and homophobia, for a reconsideration of the harms of anti-identity, anti-equality speech and what might be done about the problems.