Campus Free Speech

UConn Students Fighting for Broader Free Speech Protections Face Backlash on Campus

Despite the outraged response from his peers, student Isadore Johnson is still optimistic about the future of free speech at UConn.


"The University of Connecticut is permitted to, and will, limit expression in order to protect public safety and the rights of others," states the university's official policy regarding campus speech, adopted in 2017. "This includes expression that is defamatory, threatening, or invades individual privacy. Protected speech may also be reasonably regulated as to the time, place, and manner of the expression."

To Isadore Johnson, a rising senior at the University of Connecticut (UConn), this didn't sound like a very free speech–friendly policy at all.

Johnson—a founder of UConn's Students for Liberty (SFL) chapter—delights in debating and befriending people he disagrees with across the political spectrum. So he was dismayed by the university's statement and worried it would be misinterpreted by students to shut down speech with which they disagree.

"I think many universities, including UConn, take it for granted that students appreciate the protections and values of open discourse and discussion," Johnson tells Reason. "Many students do not, and it is incumbent on the university to clarify and explain such values so students know what rights are protected. The right to argue vigorously and sometimes offensively is part of our civic culture, and students ought not be protected against that."

Johnson was determined to improve free speech rights on his campus, no matter the social cost. That commitment was put to the test after a statement he proposed to the student government to protect freedom of speech on campus created a storm of outrage from his peers.

The proposed statement on the freedom of speech and expression—submitted to the undergraduate student government last spring by Johnson, other members of the SFL chapter, and student body President Michael Hernández—was based on the well-regarded Chicago Statement. It includes quotes from free speech advocates across history, such as academic Michael Poliakoff and philosopher John Stuart Mill.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education said the students' "UConn Statement" employs "gold-standard free speech policy language" but nothing "groundbreaking." Nonetheless, Johnson and his friends received significant and sometimes vitriolic pushback from their peers on campus. 

In a number of public Instagram stories, opponents of the statement called Johnson, Hernández, and their friends racist, bigoted, and white supremacists because they did not care about "accountability."

"The backlash on campus surprised me," says Johnson. "I was of the opinion that many students on the surface enjoyed free speech, but didn't know much about it. I was somewhat uncomfortable getting threats, as I'm sure anyone would be. In particular, I found it especially surprising and troubling how the human rights organizations on campus remained indifferent if not hostile to our goal."

One Instagram message sent to him asked, "Can I call you a greasy haired cracker or is that not free speech?" Another contained a screenshot of a Google Images search for "cracker thats doing too much," followed by a video of an ISIS beheading.

More moderate opposition, as expressed by contributor Nell Srinath in an article in UConn's student newspaper, suggested the statement was unnecessary and a net negative. While stating that "freedom to safely express one's own thoughts and ideas is a central pillar to the culture that we as a student body would like to build," Srinath also warned that "frolicking around this idealist realm, however, will soon bring to light a sobering conclusion: The freedom of speech, when evoked by groups carried by centuries of racial capitalism and patriarchy (see: white cis men), is a euphemism. It does not represent a commitment to the liberties of their broader, multicultural community, but a call to a lost love — the ability to apologize for racism, transmisogyny, ableism and other social ills with impunity."

"Naturally," Srinath argues, "the consequence of [adopting the new speech proposal] would be forcing students to tolerate bigoted speech in their student government, in their learning environment and in campus life."

This spring, Hernández and his supporters officially pulled their legislation from consideration after they said that the undergraduate student government violated its own procedures to keep the issue from even being raised for a vote. One committee, Johnson says, went as far as to pack a committee meeting with opponents to keep the statement from being proposed. 

So Johnson turned the statement into a petition, posted it to Facebook, and received 139 signatures from UConn students and faculty within the first 10 days.

Hernández's support of the statement led to the student government approving a vote of no confidence against him as president. This made Hernández one of four presidents of the student government last year. Typically presidents serve for one entire year.

"I am not perfect but I care about our rights," Hernández told The College Fix on the issue. "One of my family members ran for mayor of a city in Honduras and was killed during the campaign trail for opposing the political orthodoxy. In much of the world speech is not free. On the contrary, some people have to pay for it with their lives."

The chaos caused the UConn administration to step in, sanctioning the student government and appointing an administrative monitor of the organization.

Going into the fall of his senior year, Johnson is still hopeful about the cause of freedom of speech at UConn, and is planning to use SFL to bring a number of speakers to campus to talk to students on the issue. He is also still promoting the UConn Statement via an Instagram page.

"I'm not sure exactly how this problem will be resolved, but I'm optimistic that it will be," Johnson says.

He hopes that by making people outside of campus aware of what is going on, donors and taxpayers who contribute to the school—not to mention Connecticut lawmakers—will listen and help make action happen.

"I think raising awareness about the problem is the first step to solving it," he says.

He tells Reason, "I understand that many libertarians are uncomfortable with the way that institutions like academia are functioning. Getting involved, even as an individual, can and does make a difference."