Freedom of Speech at the Crossroads

To Sanford J. Ungar, St. Paul seemed the perfect first place to take his popular Freedom of Speech at the Crossroads discussion series on the road.

Sanford J. Ungar

“There is this great tradition of talking things over,” said Ungar, director of the Free Speech Project at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Ungar’s Freedom of Speech International Dialogues have been popular at Georgetown University since their launch three years ago. But he said he felt they were a little too focused on coastal and New England audiences. So he started to explore other places to hold events.

There is clearly a lot to discuss. The three-day event, co-hosted by St. Paul’s Hamline University, runs from Monday, Sept. 18 through Wednesday, Sept. 20. It is free of charge, though registration is requested. Food will be provided.

The symposium is “an effort to activate a deeper understanding of Free Speech and First Amendment issues across the country.” To that end, moderated talks will tackle such hot topics as “Protecting the Right to Protest” and “Hate Speech in Politics and Education,” among others.

“We chose St. Paul first, just because we thought it was fertile ground for something like this and that we’d get a good reception,” Ungar said. “I think we have and we will.”

Here, the series will be rebranded as “A Minnesota Dialogue.”

Broad subject area

The event kicks off with a discussion featuring Hamline University political science professor David Schultz and University of Minnesota media ethics professor Jane Kirtley, a former MNCOGI board member. Moderated by Ungar, their talk will address “The State of Free Speech in America Today.”

Another panel will feature Leita Walker, the attorney leading MNCOGI’s lawsuit against the city of Minneapolis seeking release of police disciplinary records. It covers “Minnesota’s Checkered History With Free Expression.”

The first day’s event will be held in Osborn370, the St. Paul building where the Knight Foundation’s Twin Cities offices are located; Knight is a primary funder of Georgetown’s Free Speech Project. The following day, the action will shift to Hamline University.

A total of 10 talks are planned over the three-day span. While all cover worthy subjects, Ungar points to one he thinks will be particularly intriguing; a debate among students of the University of St. Thomas’s well-regarded ThreeSixtyJournalism program, where they will argue the pros and cons of government social media regulation.

“That is going to be, I think, a very interesting debate,” he said.

Free Speech Tracker

To Ungar, free speech in the United States hits close to home. In 2017, his school began compiling the Free Speech Tracker. What started as a modest effort to track a few troubling occurrences has since morphed into a database of 830 such incidents nationwide.

More than a few of those happened in Minnesota. They include one 2023 incident in which a traveling preacher was ordered to remove a “Jesus Saves” t-shirt at the Mall of America. Another involved a pro-Trump mural at the University of Minnesota, which was summarily painted over with the message, “Stop White Supremacy.”

Yet another was the $723,000 payout to 15 different people to settle complaints against the Minneapolis Police Department for excessive force during political protests in 2020 and 2021.

And the list goes on.

“I think it’s a crisis,” Ungar said. “Some people don’t like to use the word ‘crisis.’ But the free speech problem is ubiquitous in this country. And that’s one of the things we proved with our Free Speech Tracker.”

MNCOGI strongly supports the Freedom of Speech symposium and its goals, and we encourage anyone who can to attend.