WATCH: 5 Big Questions for UConn students fighting for stronger First Amendment protections

Isadore Johnson and Michael Hernandez are pushing their university to adopt a new free speech policy.

Both students have faced severe pushback from their classmates.

Isadore Johnson and Michael Hernandez, both seniors at the University of Connecticut, are leading the charge to change their college’s free speech policy amid steep opposition. 

Johnson and Hernandez say UConn’s current speech policy does not go far enough to protect the rights of students. They answered 5 Big Questions about their experience fighting for First Amendment rights on a college campus. 

The policy reads in part, “The University of Connecticut is permitted to, and will, limit expression in order to protect public safety and the rights of others…Protected speech may also be regulated as to the time, place, and manner of the expression.”

[RELATED: 5 Big Questions for Rep. Nancy Mace]

Johnson says he was surprised to find that UConn’s existing policy contains what he calls “a significant portion of unconstitutional ways of dealing with student speech.” He says, “An important function of free expression is the ability to speak freely without expecting to be punished for explaining your position.”

The duo has proposed a bill to the student government that would advance a free speech policy more in line with the Chicago Statement, which is a set of principles generally viewed as the gold standard in protecting the First Amendment rights of students. 

Hernandez, the student body president, says he was shocked by the pushback he encountered from his classmates. 

“I never thought I would have to fight inside a university campus,” he said, “because I came in with the assumption that civil liberties were enshrined and they were protected especially given the fact that the University of Connecticut is a public university.”

Hernandez says other students abused the bias reporting system in an effort to discredit his efforts. He tells Campus Reform that seven bias reports were filed against him in one night when he spoke out against defunding the campus police. 

“It became clear students can’t have tough conversations, because they’ve been told that they need to be in safe spaces, and that they can’t be challenged," he explains. 

Johnson says a healthy debate is welcomed, and that the free exchange of ideas is part of the value of a college education.  

“It’s important for students to understand that dissent and having independent judgement is a crucial aspect to a culture of free expression and of the liberal arts education in general," he states. 

[RELATED: 5 Big Questions for Kenny Xu]

Johnson plans to keep up the pressure on UConn to adopt the proposed free speech policy. He says, “By putting the spotlight on bad behavior, we think it acts as a disinfectant.” 

Hernandez agrees. He tells Campus Reform that UConn donors and state legislators are paying attention to the future of this project. 

Johnson and Hernandez say they are committed to getting this new policy across the finish line. They believe that strengthening free speech protections will protect current and future students from having their rights abridged by the university. 

Follow the interviewer on Twitter: @AngelaLMorabito