Professor john a. powell to deliver Derrick Bell Lecture

Bell Lecture part of Freedom of Expression Series

Feb 04, 2018

The exploration of the fundamental right of free speech is a focus and centerpiece of the University of Oregon's new "Freedom of Expression” series, co-chaired by Dean Marcilynn Burke of the School of Law and Dean Juan-Carlos Molleda of the School of Journalism and Communication. Appropriately, the first voice of the series is that of Professor john a. powell who will deliver the Derrick Bell Lecture on Tuesday, February 13.

It is significant that powell will deliver the Derrick Bell Lecture. As past legal director for the ACLU, powell argued that the First Amendment should not protect speech that causes psychological harm and exacerbates racial discrimination. As recently as September, the acclaimed civil rights scholar and author reminded a panel of his UC Berkeley peers that, while hate speech is protected now, the U.S. Supreme Court has not been infallible in determining fundamental civil rights, citing the court’s support of slavery and banning women from the workplace.

“Recent events have brought into focus for many of us the complexities and challenges associated with exercising the fundamental right to free speech,” said Dean Burke. “While there is a call for various institutions to protect this right, including colleges and universities, simultaneously, such institutions are being asked to ensure that vigorous and open dialogue is not used as a means to engender violence, oppression, exclusion, or acrimony.”

powell’s lecture “Looking Up from the Bottom of the Well” is a nod to the best-selling book by Derrick Bell, Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism. In discussing the lecture, Dean Burke notes that, “Prof. powell not only challenges the dominant view of the freedom of speech, but he does it through a lens of equity, which makes his Derrick Bell Lecture an ideal starting point for the ‘Freedom of Expression’ series.” 

Voicing opinions that challenge the status quo in the pursuit of equity is part of the legacy of Derrick Bell, a famed civil rights attorney for the NAACP who served alongside Thurgood Marshall and later was named Dean of the University of Oregon School of Law. Among his many contributions to academia, Dean Bell is widely considered one of the founders of critical race theory, having written extensively about race in the United States. He also challenged the academic institutions he served to commit to diversity. Oregon Law recognizes the legacy of Dean Bell with annual lectures in his name. 

Beginning with the Derrick Bell Lecture on Feb. 13, the Freedom of Expression series will explore the content, scope, and limits of the First Amendment on college campuses. It is an opportunity both to celebrate and debate the right of every American to freedom of expression while nurturing inclusive campus conversations with broad and diverse perspectives.