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Inaugural Free Speech Week Kicks Off During Needed Time

February 17, 2021
Free Speech Week kicks off Monday, Feb. 22.
Free Speech Week kicks off Monday, Feb. 22.

When the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) began planning its first Free Speech Week a year ago, staff members couldn’t anticipate just how timely the event would be in 2021.

Planning began in spring 2020 but the observation was put on hold when the COVID-19 pandemic brought in-person activities to a screeching halt. Since then, deepening political division in the United States, culminating in insurrection at the Capitol in January, has made the topic of free speech front and center for many. The delay brought forth poignant examples of free speech debate, laying the groundwork for an important discussion at a time when many people have more questions than answers.

“Now more than ever, providing our community with tools and resources that address issues of free speech and hate speech is vital,” said Chief Diversity Officer Dania Matos. “We hope that our attendees gain helpful information during the week’s events that will empower them to continue championing dialogues that matter while gaining a deeper understanding of how to navigate issues associated with free speech and hate speech at UC Merced and beyond.”

While originally planned to be in person, the remote version of Free Speech Week may actually help some people feel more comfortable because they can participate in the nuanced discussions from the comfort of their own homes.

“The aim of the workshops is to try and make an abstract concept of free speech — which can be really nebulous and intimidating for some — into an accessible and understandable conversation with various audiences,” said Maria Ramirez Loyola, a graduate student researcher with EDI.

The theme of Free Speech Week, which is sponsored by the UC National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, is “Can Speech Truly Be Free?” Chancellor Juan Sánchez Muñoz will give welcome remarks and Matos will introduce keynote speaker DePauw University President Lori White, Ph.D. The calendar of events addresses a range of issues, from discerning hate speech from free speech to navigating free speech in academia.

Free Speech Week kicks off Monday, Feb. 22, with Jennifer Lambe, a University of Delaware communications professor and a 2020-2021 fellow through the UC’s Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement. Her seminar is titled “Hate Speech and Free Speech.” Sessions run through Feb. 26 and feature a range of staff and faculty members, including two representatives from PEN America’s Campus Free Speech program, will also give talks on free speech within a global context.

Free Speech Week is open to all staff, faculty and students. An overview of the different workshops and registration is available here.