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Social media & campus speakers

| Saturday, March 25, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
Tribune-Review contributing writer Andrew Conte.
Tribune-Review contributing writer Andrew Conte.

We never will know what Wendy Bell might have said.

The former WTAE-TV anchor decided recently not to speak at Point Park University's Center for Media Innovation because of online protests. She would have talked about her new project, Positively Wendy Bell , but also would have inevitably faced questions about the Facebook post that led the station to fire her last year.

A group of Facebook users raised objections to the event: Some people see Bell's original post as racially insensitive or ignorant; others feel it was appropriate. Embroiled in a lawsuit with the station, Bell said her lawyers discouraged her from speaking .

A larger trend has started on college campuses with protesters seeking to prevent others from speaking.

The University of California at Berkeley canceled a January appearance by conservative commentator Milo Yiannopoulos when protesters rioted outside the venue where he was to speak. The school's chancellor defended his right to speak , even as he encouraged people to voice their concerns, citing the “need to make a spirited defense of the principle of tolerance, even when it means we tolerate that which may appear to us as intolerant.”

Earlier this month, students at Vermont's Middlebury College shouted down Charles Murray , co-author of the 1994 book “The Bell Curve” that linked poverty with race and intelligence. Similar questions came up at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism recently when Breitbart economics editor John Carney was invited to speak on a panel with journalists from The New York Times, The Guardian, CNN and The New Yorker.

“Giving Carney a chance to air grievances may have led to uncomfortable moments ... but he also drove conversation,” Columbia Journalism Review reported .

When Bell declined to appear, we invited several media experts to talk about social media's power. The words we write, on Facebook and Twitter especially, tend to stick around, particularly in the age of President Trump tweeting personal thoughts and administration strategies.

We also invited Samey Jay, a Point Park senior and communications coordinator at Pittsburgh United , a coalition of community, labor, faith and environmental groups. Jay opposed Bell's appearance but was thoughtful about it, when others were offensive and even vulgar. Jay voiced concern, in particular, that student voices were not being heard.

Using social media to communicate and organize in new ways can lead to mob rule with dissenting voices drowning out meaningful discussion. But social media also can create forums for better conversation, when we choose to use them that way.

“Engaging in dialogue, sharing information, and especially sharing experiences and stories, is fundamental to altering the public conscience,” Jay wrote on Facebook before her appearance. “By using social media in these ways we can reach new audiences, connect people previously disconnected from one another, and effectively organize together.”

Jay's important and thoughtful perspective provided poignant proof of why we need spaces for meaningful discussion, even when it's hard.

Andrew Conte is the director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University.

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