Takeaways from Francesca Procaccini’s Harry Lee Waterfield Distinguished Lecture in Public Affairs at Murray State

May 4, 2023

First Amendment scholar Francesca Procaccini, assistant professor of law, delivered the Harry Lee Waterfield Distinguished Lecture in Public Affairs at Murray State University on April 25.

Her lecture, “Child Citizens: Free Speech in Public Schools,” focused on the challenges of establishing limits on speech that protect vulnerable communities, including schoolchildren, while also respecting constitutional freedoms.

Some key takeaways:

  • Free speech is essential to democracy but limits for speech to children are challenging to define. Procaccini characterizes the free speech debate as “an exercise in line drawing.”
  • Schools have become a battleground in the debate over appropriate limits on free speech. Thirty-six states have introduced 137 bans on school curriculum that overwhelmingly target instruction concerning race, racism, sexism, and LGBTQ+ identity.
  • Discussions about legislation limiting speech in schools should involve three constituents: teachers, parents, and students.
  • Teachers are government employees, which introduces a power dynamic into their speech. “As a government employee, when you speak, you often hold a certain degree of power in your voice,” Procaccini said.
  • Parents’ free speech rights do not supersede those of their children.
  • Students’ rights to receive information and free speech are protected under the First Amendment.
  • Age-appropriateness and “legitimate pedagogical interests” are appropriate reasons to restrict a student’s right to receive information.

Procaccini’s talk was based on her article “(E)racing Speech in School,” which is forthcoming in the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review.

Established in 1977, Waterfield Lecture was the first annual lecture series established at Murray State University. It was named in honor of former Kentucky Lt. Gov. Harry Lee Waterfield, who founded the Investors’ Heritage Life Insurance Co. of Frankfort. Past lecturers have included three Kentucky governors, three senators and accomplished scholars, diplomats, judges and government officials.

Procaccini is the third Vanderbilt scholar to deliver the Waterfield Lecture. Professor of Political Science David E. Lewis and Chancellor Emeritus and Professor of Political Science Alexander Heard delivered the lecture in 2022 and 1989, respectively.

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