Stokes: ‘Any and All Speech That is an Affront To One’s Dignity and Humanity Should Not Be Legitimized”

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By Ashlyn Kelly


FRAMINGHAM – Sy Stokes spoke to Framingham State University students and the wider community in a talk titled  “Freedom of Speech and the Politics of Morality: Campus Racial Climate in the Modern Era” yesterday, March 30.

Stokes is director of Coqual’s qualitative research team in identifying solutions for advancing equity in the workplace. His research interrogates capitalism, nationalism, white supremacy, and racism.

Stokes noted that freedom of speech is a “hotly contested topic,” especially “over the last several decades.

“Public colleges [and] universities who are required to adhere to the First Amendment have found themselves in a rather difficult predicament in terms of how to respond when this wave of rhetoric,” which is often “prejudicial … infiltrates their campuses, and so it has become a significant obstacle in creating the safe and affirming campus racial climate for marginalized students of color.”

“Over the last 30 years, mor ethan 350 colleges and universities have attempted to adopt restricting hate speech codes, but every court has declared it unconstitutional” due to the high bar set by the Supreme Court to “punish those who advocate or incite illegal action,” said Stokes.

He added “right-wing speakers and their organizational affiliates continue to target college campuses” due to university’s inability to do anything.

Stokes said University of Pennsylvania Professor Sigal Ben-Porath provided a tool to “define what speech should be welcomed on college campuses and which should be condemned by the institution.”

He said the first kind of speech, “intellectual safety,” is the kind that students must partake in to learn about different viewpoints and opinions. 

The second kind of speech, said Stokes, is “dignitary safety” which “focuses on the material consequences that harmful speech can have on marginalized” people. 

“Intellectual safety should be welcomed in value,” said Stokes. “Any and all speech that is an affront to one’s dignity and humanity should not be legitimized or ideologically sponsored by higher education institutions through these invited speaking engagements.”

“I want to emphasize that I’m not asking for students to be shielded from all perspectives,” added Stokes. “The concerns of our students are legitimate and students are not some sensitive snowflakes who can’t take criticism.” 

When asked about how to hold students and staff accountable, Stokes said if it was someone outside from the campus community “while you can’t prevent them from being on campus,” and “[the school] can’t approach it as this all students matter discourse … so a statement that comes out is not ‘We want to protect all students’ or ‘We’re going to engage in these trainings or whatever to fix it.’ It’s ‘We have [the specific targeted community’s] back.’”

The Olivia A. Davidson Voices of Color Speaker Series is an annual lecture featuring a prominent voice addressing issues of racial justice and racism in America, according to Framingham State University.

It is named after Framingham State University alumna Olivia A. Davidson (Class of 1886), who helped found the Tuskegee Institute with her husband Booker T. Washington.

The public was invited to attend the lecture yesterday remotely.


Ashlyn Kelly is a Spring 2022 SOURCE intern. She is a is a senior communication arts major with minors in political science and journalism at Framingham State University. When she is not writing an article, you can usually find her in a theatre.


Photos by SOURCE Intern Caroline Gordon, a Framingham State University senior.


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