WMU News

Presentation takes feminist view on freedom of speech

March 22, 2000

KALAMAZOO -- What does the First Amendment really mean? Is having the right to free speech realistic in a modern day society with corroding ethical standards?

Conflicting interpretations of the First Amendment, specifically by feminist ethic care theorists, will be addressed in a free public presentation Tuesday, March 28 at Western Michigan University. Dr. Nancy C. Cornwell, assistant professor of communication, will discuss "Caring About Speech: A Feminist Take on the First Amendment" at 7 p.m. in Room 105 of the Bernhard Center.

"Feminist theory provides an interesting way to look at the First Amendment," says Cornwell, who has written papers and made presentations on hate speech and freedom of expression. "In a society where communication is a privilege, there is no such thing as an absolute First Amendment."

In addition to challenging one's traditional notion of free expression, Cornwell says she hopes to promote discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the feminist ethic care approach. She says the ethic of care theory validates the skills and virtues traditionally associated with women and women's roles.

"I am taking one particular point of view known as the feminist ethic care," she says. "Research has found there is a pattern, be it nature or nurture, that women think in more social context and men are more abstract. The First Amendment was written in a time when men largely articulated the value system.

"We are much more socially defined today. The First Amendment is not realistic in modern times because we live in a very crowded world."

Cornwell says her presentation, which will draw on various disciplines such as philosophy, mass communication and political theory, also will address current debates on hate speech and the relationship this issue has to the First Amendment.

"This discussion will be really interesting to those interested in the First Amendment and anyone really who has struggled with their feeling of what hate speech is and whether it should be protected," she says. "There are no right and wrongs on this issue. I want to try and get people to think outside the box."

Cornwell's presentation is part of WMU's Center for the Study of Ethics in Society Winter 2000 Public Presentations series. The series, which began in January and runs through April, examines ethical issues in a variety of disciplines. The next scheduled lecture will be Monday,

April 3, and will feature WMU President Elson S. Floyd, who will speak on "Ethics and the University Presidency."

For more information on "Caring About Speech: A Feminist Take on the First Amendment," contact Cornwell at (616) 387-2901.

Media contact: Pauline Oo, 616 387-8400, pauline.oo@wmich.edu

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