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8 questions with Karla Kennedy, free speech and student voice advocate

8 questions with Karla Kennedy, free speech and student voice advocate

February 2, 2021 at 2:00pm

Karla Kennedy believes speech has the power to change the world. 

The director of distance learning at the College of Communication, Architecture + The Arts (CARTA), Kennedy has spent her career teaching students the importance of speech and helping them find their voice. 

FIU News recently caught up with Kennedy—who, in addition to student speech, focuses on First Amendment rights and the effects of journalism instruction in minority classrooms—to learn more about her work, specifically with marginalized students.

How did you get into this field? Is this something you always knew you wanted to do?

Yes. My parents were both very civically minded and that rubbed off on me. In high school, I was involved in student government, editor of my school’s newspaper, and just an all-around nerdy girl who was really interested in voice and how we can use it to initiate change and empower others.

Can you share an example of when your voice helped you initiate change?

When I was in high school, one of the biggest things we were able to do was get the city bus routes moved to the front of the school.

Initially, the bus stop was in the back of the school, and students all said that was unsafe because, for students involved in extracurricular activities, they were sometimes waiting out there all by themselves late at night. And the administrators are not really aware of these sorts of things because they are not the ones who ride the bus. So, the students banded together and went down to the city commission to get the bus route changed to the front of the school, and we were successful.

What does being a First Amendment and voice advocate for students entail?

Previously, I worked in many predominantly black schools, and culturally black students are usually taught to subdue their voice. Also, many minority schools typically do not have the funding for newspapers, yearbooks, or websites, so there is no voice, and many do not learn they even have a voice unless they go to college.

So, in my role, I teach students, especially minority students, that they, one, have a voice and then train them how to use it effectively.


You're very passionate about your work. What is your driving force? 

My driving force is to teach students how to think rather than what to think, as Malcolm X once said. I want them to be able to disagree or agree on an issue but, at the end of the day, still have all the information they need to go out and tell the story.

In my classes, I help guide them, but essentially, they do the work for themselves. And it is really empowering to see. For example, when I used to teach TV production to high school students in North Miami, I remember often walking into class and my students were already gathered around talking about the stories they wanted to cover and when I would ask if they needed help, they would tell me, 'no, you already taught us how to do this.'

What are you hoping students take away from your research and your expertise in this field? 

I want my students to hunger for the truth whether or not it is something they end up agreeing with.

What advice would you give to students?

My advice—not everything you end up doing is going to be on your radar, but that can also be where you are supposed to go in life.

I would also tell students that there are going to be times when they hit it out of the park – and those times are great – but there are also going to be times when they do not. That's OK too; because every experience is a learning experience.

As future professional communicators, what should journalism students be learning?

Objectivity. Before getting to college, students have been taught for the past 12 years that their opinion counts in their writing, but when you get to journalism and communication, all of that goes away; and you have to write from the perspective of someone else.

I remember Ken Paulson, original founder and publisher of USA Today, said years ago that journalists needed to learn how to be superheroes again. And that’s so true because we are trying to do something to help people. So, I think taking the light and shining it away from themselves and onto someone else is probably the hardest part for new journalists to learn.

Given your expertise and advocacy for the First Amendment, how do you feel about free speech rights and social media, and should there be more regulation?

Do I think we should regulate the internet more? I don’t know. I think people should be held accountable for their speech, but when we first opened the gates to the “www” there was nowhere near enough regulation and I do not think we really knew what we were getting ourselves into.

The First Amendment gives people a voice and when you give people a voice, you also give them power. So really, I think it is going to take a lot of time and a lot of intelligent people to figure out how to tame social media because people are not giving up their microphones – which is also why I believe we need to train people to learn how to think, so they can see information on the web and have the ability to make sound decisions for themselves.