(Rock Hill, S.C.) — Civil disobedience doesn’t have a clear, concise definition, according to panelists discussing the topic at an event hosted by the Winthrop chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ).
Téa Franco, vice president of the Winthrop SPJ, said the group decided to host the panel Feb. 27 on civil disobedience and free speech, because it holds an important part in the stories journalists cover.
“SPJ is an organization that is dedicated to journalism and a big part of journalism is free speech,” Franco said. “We wanted people on campus to understand those different laws and how they can go about getting their voices heard on campus.”
Franco moderated the panel that included Dr. Nathaniel Frederick and Dr. Michael Lipscomb, who fielded questions about civil disobedience, free speech zones, hate speech and how those concepts apply to college campuses like Winthrop.
Frederick, an associate professor of mass communication and director of African American studies, focuses on the intersectionality of race, media, culture and social protests.
Lipscomb, a professor of political science, teaches political theory and environmental politics.
Lipscomb referred to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and how protests, boycotts and sit-ins were intended to bring racial equality during an era when black Americans did not have a voice.
“When I think of civil disobedience, particularly in the context of free speech, and maybe particularly in the context of American politics, I think about the way that its been deployed as a particular political tactic. That has allowed people to pursue political goals, when the normal channels of political action have been foreclosed,” Lipscomb said.
However, Frederick cautioned that students who participate in civil disobedience could face possible expulsion.
Frederick noted that Cleveland Sellers, a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was “essentially expelled” from college after being arrested for inciting a riot during the Orangeburg Massacre at South Carolina State University on Feb. 8, 1968.
Sellers visited the historically black college with the intent to educate other students on activism and civil rights. Ultimately, three people were killed and 27 others were injured after police opened fire on a crowd of about 200 protesters.
Lipscomb said free speech can be difficult to express due to social constraints and laws.
“Even in this freest of countries, there are limitations. There are laws they sometimes have to navigate in order to most fully express themselves,” he said. “Free speech, I guess, isn’t always free. There is a cost that you sometimes have to pay to speak as honestly and as fully as you might think is appropriate, given the realities of the here and now.”
Those who participate in acts of civil disobedience often experience consequences, because the concept is abstract with many differing in opinions.
Junior political science and history major Joshua Alicea said the event confirmed his belief that a political actor could be seen as a “terrorist” by one person or a “freedom fighter” by another.
“Depending on your political beliefs, your opinion in a certain situation, you could see someone speaking up (and say), ‘that is free speech, that is civil disobedience. I’m all for that,’” said Alicea.
He said he liked how the panelists brought attention to how someone explaining their beliefs or values can be mistaken as hate speech.
“You can’t just censor one person’s opinion because you don’t agree with it,” Alicea said. “It’s nice to see that Winthrop is all for that, although some students are totally against that.”
Alicea said he believes in allowing others to freely express their opinions, because it opens opportunities for debates and learning.
Lipscomb said this type of discussion is important for students, because it helps develop their sense of citizenship and opens a dialogue about society.
“It’s important to go to college to get jobs, but we give you more than that. We also help you become fuller citizens and that is very important for folks that want to live up to the democratic potential that America promises,” Lipscomb said.